Washington state is moving to ban or restrict the sale of assault weapons
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Washington has become the 10th state in the U.S. to restrict the sale of assault-style weapons. The bans are a response to recent mass shootings, and they're mostly being taken up in states run by Democrats. That's setting up a confrontation in the courts over whether such bans are even enforceable. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Traditionally, Washington has had permissive gun laws, but that's been changing in the last few years. The state has restricted large-capacity ammunition magazines. It's raised the age to buy semi-automatic rifles to 21. And now this...
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PATTY KUDERER: We're here to say enough is enough.
KASTE: That's State Senator Patty Kuderer, a Democrat, calling on her colleagues earlier this month to ban new sales of a long list of semi-automatic rifles and other guns broadly categorized as assault weapons.
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KUDERER: I don't want to see another life taken in a mass shooting. I don't want to see any more gun violence. I was, quite frankly, fed up at Columbine.
KASTE: At the time of the Columbine school massacre in Colorado in 1999, the U.S. had a federal ban on assault weapons, but that law expired in 2004. Sam Levy is the regional legal director at Everytown for Gun Safety.
SAM LEVY: Unfortunately, in this environment, federally, there's no federal help coming in terms of regulating these deadly weapons. And so the responsibility falls to the states to do what they can.
KASTE: States such as California and New York have had their own bans for years, and homicide rates are lower there than the national average. Assault weapons account for a very small percentage of homicides, but they are used in most high-profile mass shootings such as Uvalde, Texas. After that tragedy last May, more states passed assault weapons bans - first Delaware, then Illinois, now Washington, where the gun stores saw the predictable rush of customers as the legislation neared passage.
AUSTIN CHANG: We ran about a year and a half worth of sales out through these last two months.
KASTE: Austin Chang owns Iron Monkey Rifleworks in suburban Seattle. His displays are mostly empty now, save for the odd rarity like a modified Kalashnikov. Chang is surprisingly accepting of this new ban.
CHANG: We've seen such horrible things happen with firearms. And, of course, honestly, being in the industry, I, too, feel responsible, you know, in some way - not literally. But I understand what they're trying to do. I know that they won't get the result that they want.
KASTE: He says his customers are not the problem, but in a Democratic-run state, he doesn't see how you can turn back this tide of gun restrictions. Farther away from Seattle, in Vancouver, Wash., Dan Mitchell is not giving up.
DAN MITCHELL: There's multiple lawsuits that are already prepared, and those will be filed the moment the ink is dry.
KASTE: Mitchell also owns a gun store, and he's an eager plaintiff in Second Amendment lawsuits, which have cropped up in almost every state with a ban like this. He sees these bans as unconstitutional, especially after the Supreme Court's Bruen decision last year.
MITCHELL: Bruen really did a fine job of requiring states to prove that there was similar restrictions at the time of our founding or the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791.
KASTE: He expects the courts will eventually have to affirm Americans' traditional right to these guns, even though AR-15s didn't exist two centuries ago. Mitchell says that doesn't matter because traditional rights also apply to new technologies.
MITCHELL: Did they have telephones when they signed the Bill of Rights? Why is our phone conversation protected if we didn't have phones back then?
KASTE: But other considerations may also come into play under Bruen, says Andrew Willinger. He's the executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law.
ANDREW WILLINGER: If you say, well, there's a historical tradition of restricting dangerous weapons more generally - right? - things like bowie knives, Bruen says that if there's technological changes or unprecedented societal concerns that you should use a more nuanced analysis.
KASTE: In other words, does public concern about the sheer lethality of assault-style weapons make them a special case - guns so powerful they can be restricted? As states passed laws that Congress won't, Willinger predicts the courts will contradict each other quite a bit on this question before we get a final answer. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.