Seattle will require gun owners to lock up their firearms and fine those who don’t comply under legislation passed by City Council last week. Beyond the monetary penalties, the new law will allow local courts to build negligence cases, which has become nearly impossible in many states under constitutional carry laws.
After a small grace period, storing a gun outside a locked container will be a civil infraction punishable with a fine of up to $500, the Seattle Times reports. And when an owner knows that a minor or “at-risk person” could reasonably access their weapon — and then that second party does access it and causes some kind of harm — the owner can be charged with a similar infraction in the ballpark of $1,000 (for access) and $10,000 (if the minor hurts someone or commits a crime).
“While we can’t prevent every gun death or injury, we can take steps to help prevent future tragedies,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said in a statement, as reported by the Times. “Requiring that gun owners responsibly store their guns can help make our communities safer places to live.”
The Seattle Stranger points out that it’s still unclear “exactly how — or how strictly — Seattle will enforce the new law.” But the legislation has the potential of helping courts charge violators with negligence — at least as far as the weapon’s storage. As the New Republic has covered, any kind of negligence charge is increasingly difficult to come by.
From a 2015 article:
Every year many gun owners … unintentionally cause death and injury yet face no legal consequences. In criminal and civil courts, the legal system often fails to hold negligent gun owners accountable for such harm. Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit effort that combs through more than a thousand media sources to collect information about gun violence, has verified more than 1,500 accidental shooting incidents in 2014. Data on the legal outcomes of these shootings is sketchy, but many cases of unprosecuted unintentional shootings are available — dozens from the first two months of 2014 alone remain unprosecuted.
Like other cities trying to curb gun violence within their municipal borders, Seattle is constrained by state preemption laws. Washington law prevents local policymakers from regulating the “registration, licensing, possession, purchase, sale, acquisition, transfer, discharge, and transportation of firearms, or any other element relating to firearms or parts thereof, including ammunition and reloader components,” according to the Stranger.
The new law appears to skirt the state regulation — which could spell victory for local gun control advocates since other state preemption laws are much stricter. In Florida, for example, state law —with more than a little financial help from the National Rifle Association (NRA) — forbids cities and counties from enacting any of their own gun laws. Officials who craft or enforce such laws face up to a $5,000 fine and removal from office. That includes seemingly innocuous measures, like codes banning guns in libraries and parks and laws limiting celebratory shots or gunfire in dense urban areas. (More Next City coverage of state preemption laws, including plastic bag ban bans and measures forbidding paid sick leave can be found here, here and here).
But the state, and the NRA, could retaliate in Seattle, too. According to the Stranger, City Council passed a law to tax guns and ammunition sold within the city in 2015. Gun rights advocates did end up challenging that law, claiming it violated the state’s preemption. The Washington State Supreme Court sided with the city, however, and upheld the tax — a move that likely gave city officials courage to push back against the preemption once again.
Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian.