Kicking The Can Down The Road

It’s time to get serious about gun laws.

Russ Lehman
Russ Lehman

Well, it’s been about two weeks of relative quiet in Olympia since the city has been the equivalent of the treehouse where the “he-man people haters club” gang meets to rant against, well…civilized society. They are easy to identify – they are the ones with the dangled weaponry, calling themselves “patriots” and waving the signs calling for … a coup. 

Yea, that’s the price we pay living in a capital city. Surely there have been many more protests and demonstrations by people representing the “other side” of the political spectrum in Olympia’s history, given that it is home to a generally more left-leaning population. But whether they were marchers for science, women, LGBTQ people, or anti-war causes, they could be sometimes described as unorganized, with painfully boring speeches and in the end mostly virtue signaling – but they were always peaceful, non-violent, and unthreatening. 

The relatively recent (thanks again Mr. Trump!) spate of Rambo wannabes coming to Olympia to yell their demands that “their bars be opened up”, or “masks are for sheep”, or “Muslims go home” have fundamentally changed the role of protest, free speech and the right to petition our government in a democratic republic.

Two weekends in a row, gunshots occurred, people were arrested, and at two events people were shot. Surely this can’t be a surprise to anyone. Some of these protesters were openly carrying so many weapons it was almost difficult to read their Proud Boys and Q-Anon t-shirts.

The Mayor of Olympia, in obvious exasperation and frustration, has asked that the Capitol Campus be re-opened for auto traffic so, supposedly, any violence would occur up there instead of the City’s streets and neighborhoods. Of course, the Campus put up the barricades exactly because they wanted to deescalate possible violence up there and lessen the likelihood that someone would use a car as a weapon, as has been done in other cities. 

While the Mayor’s request seems commonsensical, at least from the City’s perspective, it highlights the tendency for some elected officials to focus on the (more politically palatable) symptom instead of the (actual) problem. An even more ironic example of the myopia of some of our State Representatives is the shock and outrage coming from the legislature now that they realize “hey some of those gun nuts carrying automatic weapons are scary dudes!” as they first attempted to get the Governor to do by executive rule what they don’t have the chutzpah to do themselves – ban guns from the Capitol.

So, this year we are already seeing bills to do just that. One bill already introduced would restrict “open carry” at public demonstrations (umm, a full employment for lawyers bill?) and disallow weapons in the Capitol. Nothing about City Halls, or other state offices, or for that matter any of the myriad places where public officials do the public’s business. Just the place where THEY work.

One thing often misunderstood by those waiving the First Amendment banner (especially when defending their oft misconstrued Second Amendment rights) is that the right to free speech does not protect you from the consequences of that speech.

Perhaps the biggest, and most dangerous, fallacy of “open carry” in Washington state is that somehow carrying deadly weapons in the open is not, in and of itself, intimidating. State statute prohibits an individual from carrying, exhibiting, displaying, or drawing a firearm in a manner that manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons. (RCW 9.41.270). Under current Washington law, including our Court’s interpretation of the statutes, a protestor with a gun properly secured in an exposed holster is unlikely to constitute a violation, but more unnerving behavior that warrants alarm for a person’s safety can be a crime. In State v. Spencer, the WA Supreme Court found an individual walking briskly on a residential street at 10:00 PM, carrying a loaded AK-47 assault rifle slung over his shoulder warranted alarm in violation of the law. 

Why have neither the Olympia Police nor Thurston County Sheriffs enforced what seems to be violations of our law by many of these gun-toting protestors, who by the way believe wearing a mask is an unreasonable intrusion of their “constitutional rights”? The answer is likely in part the complexity of the factual and constitutional situation, (some of) their ideological sympathies with the protesters, their fear of starting a shooting match with people who are probably not the most well trained in either shooting or self-control, and the fear the perception could be that a liberal city’s law enforcement is being used to quash right-wing protest.

The fact remains that the current situation, likely to get worse, was totally predictable when “open carry” was allowed in Washington state. Similar to our Nation’s almost pathological aversion to closure, restorative justice, or reparations for our original sins, we continue to kick the can down the road at our own peril.

By Russ Lehman

1 Comment

  • Thank you for writing this piece.
    I found this piece of curious history when researching something else from 1917:
    Armed Lunatic Terrorizes Governor’s Office–where a white guy identified himself as a Mason was directed by a Oly Police officer to the Capitol and when he openly displayed a handgun, the Sheriff and National Guard (no WSP then) didn’t know what to do and sent for the Olympia Police Chief. There’s more to it, but clearly doesn’t seem like the state has developed a better plan since way back then–over a 100 years!

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