Liberal Seattle tolerates guns


SPU logoAmerica’s latest multiple public shoot-’em-up took place very near my home in Seattle. The site was Seattle Pacific University, a small private college founded a century-and-a-quarter ago by the tiny Free Methodist denomination whose pleasant Queen Anne campus my daughter and I twice rode through on a bus just the night before.

In the aftermath of the incident–one dead and three injured by a shotgun-armed suspect described as a non-student out to make a splash–there was the predictable and entirely understandable outrage about gun violence. The shock of the incident was probably enhanced by the fact it took place in the heart of Seattle, a city with famously progressive politics, which one might think includes support for gun control.

But to me the hard truth is that Seattle is a pretty gun-tolerant city in a pretty gun-tolerant state (and for that matter a pretty gun-tolerant nation).

In numerous casual conservations since becoming New To Seattle three years ago this month, I have gleaned there is reasonably broad support in Seattle for gun rights. The support isn’t unfettered, but it’s extensive.

The latest data I can find says a quarter of the households in King County, where Seattle is about one-third the population, contain a gun. This is below the estimated national average of about 35%, but still a lot of heat. Concealed-carry gun permits aren’t nearly as popular; in Seattle only about 3% of adults have one.

In 1997, a modest statewide proposal, Initiative 676, to require trigger-locks on guns as well as handgun safety training, was defeated by a crushing 71%-29% margin.

Seattle is no stranger to these kind of public horrors, which Ed Murray, the newly elected mayor, sorrowfully recounted on live TV in a short public statement from the SPU campus less than two hours after the incident. These included an incident two years ago when a shooter killed five, including four sitting at Cafe Racer, a popular coffee shop, and a 2006 episode in which gunman shot up the Seattle Jewish Federation office, killing one and injuring five.

My personal legal view (for what it’s worth, I do have a law degree) is that the Second Amendment bestows no gun rights at all upon citizens, but merely bars the Federal Government from telling states they can’t arm their own militias. State militias were a very big deal in 1791, when the Second Amendment was enacted in the fledgling days of the new republic and invasion from England was still a threat. But not now.

Yet this has been twisted by special interests–especially gun manufacturers and their lawyers–into a claimed constitutional right allowing citizens to possess boom-boom almost everywhere. The U.S. Supreme Court has gone along with much of this.

Now I consider it a fair legal question whether the Other Washington has the authority under the U.S. Constitution to tell states how to regulate guns that don’t cross state lines. But the notion that the Constitution should sharply limits state regulation–or even prohibition–of gun ownership strikes me as completely ridiculous.

However, we’re likely going to find out pretty soon where Seattleites and their fellow Washingtonians stand on some of these issues.  There are competing statewide questions scheduled for the upcoming November ballot. One, Initiative 594, would require background checks before all gun purchases. This would close the so-called “gun-show exemption” for private sellers and is backed by anti-gun activists. The second, Initiative 591, would prohibit Washington State from adopting background check rules stricter than federal law, which allows the gun-show exemption. Not surprisingly, this initiative has the strong support of the gun lobby.

Here’s what is surprising: The latest public opinion polls show majority support for both measures, which pretty much are mutually exclusive. It’s possible that if both pass, the one with the most votes would prevail.

Undoubtedly, the SPU shootings will be grist for the competing campaigns, with one side pointing to the obvious and the other saying more regulation wouldn’t have changed anything. All in all, more fire.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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