OLYMPIA, Wash. - The Washington state Supreme Court on Thursday unanimously ruled that a city ordinance requiring that guns be locked up and kept out of unauthorized hands is pre-empted by state law.
The ruling affirmed a three-judge state of appeals ruling last year in the case sparked by a lawsuit filed by three residents against the city of Edmonds after the city approved an ordinance in July 2018 requiring residents to lock up their guns or else face fines.
"Under our system of divided government, many elected bodies hold legislative power, including elected city councils. These councils, however, must legislate within constitutional constraints," Chief Justice Steven González wrote, joined by the eight other justices on the high court. "One of those constraints is that city ordinances must not ‘conflict with general laws’ that have been enacted by the people of our state by initiative or by our state legislature."
A statewide ballot measure that passed later that same year on gun safety doesn’t mandate that a firearm be stored in a particular way or place, but it created criminal penalties for when a gun isn’t properly stored and accessed by someone who is prohibited from possessing a firearm — such as a child — and used to injure or kill, displayed in public in an intimidating manner or used during a crime.
In a footnote, the court noted that since they resolved the issue of the underlying case on preemption, they did not address arguments "about the intersection of this law and Initiative 1639."
Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson said Thursday that the current preemption statute is overly broad, "tying the hands of all local governments in our state to do anything to protect our citizens."
A previous effort by the city of Seattle to ban guns in parks was stopped by the courts under the same statute.
Nelson, who said he is a gun owner who keeps his firearm stored and locked, said he will push for the Legislature to make changes allowing local governments to have the authority to address guns in their communities.
"On the one hand we can prohibit someone from smoking in a park, but we can’t prohibit them from bringing a handgun into a playground," he said in a phone interview. "Does that make sense?"
The Edmonds ordinance, which took effect in March 2019, required gun owners to keep their firearms locked up and inaccessible to others, especially children. It did not apply to firearms carried by or under the control of owners.
If anyone not permitted to use the gun got access to it, under the statute, the owner could be held civilly liable and fined up to $1,000. If an unauthorized person used the firearm to commit a crime or hurt themselves or others, the gun owner could be fined up to $10,000. Its enforcement was put on hold following an October 2019 decision at the superior court level.
The Supreme Court noted that the city argued that since the ordinance did not apply to guns in the owner’s possession, "that ordinances pertaining to storage are not preempted."
"We decline to limit the preemption statute to firearms’ transactions and active use," González wrote. "That limitation is simply not consistent with the words of the statute as a whole."
The court pointed out that the statute, adopted by the Legislature in 1985, specifies that the state "fully occupies and preempts the entire field of firearms regulation."
The Second Amendment Foundation, which, along with the National Rifle Association, was part of the litigation against the city, said the ruling should send a signal to other governments considering similar action. A lawsuit by the groups is currently pending against the city of Seattle for a gun storage law it passed in 2018.
"We will not tolerate anti-gun politicians who violate the law in order to pass laws to restrict our rights," Alan Gottlieb, the foundation’s founder and executive vice president, said in a written statement.