King County could require stores that sell guns to post signs at the door and cash register warning that owning a firearm increases the risk of suicide, homicide and other deaths.
Metropolitan King County Council Chairman Joe McDermott is proposing the new regulation, which would be enacted and enforced by the King County Board of Health.
The measure is the latest in a series advanced by local politicians and activists who say gun violence is a public-health crisis and should be dealt with as such.
Washington State Initiative 1639, which is likely to appear on the November ballot, would require gun-purchase applications to include a similar warning about the risk of death — a little like the Surgeon General’s warning on packs of cigarettes.
“Over 35,000 Americans die by firearms each year, and we need to take all the steps we possibly can to protect those who live in King County,” McDermott said, comparing gun deaths to highway fatalities.
“Decades ago, people looked at the number of deaths in auto accidents and declared a public-health crisis,” he added. “Steps were taken, from air bags to seat belts to public-relations campaigns encouraging people to wear their seat belts.”
The council member also is proposing that gun owners in unincorporated King County be required to lock up their firearms or secure them with safety devices.
That legislation will be considered by the County Council.
Seattle passed a similar measure earlier this month, attracting a lawsuit this past week by a pair of gun owners, the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) and the National Rifle Association (NRA).
McDermott, who represents West Seattle, Vashon and Maury islands and parts of Burien and Tukwila, said he knows of no other jurisdiction that requires stores that sell firearms to post death-warning signs. Under his regulation, a store would have to display one sign at the entrance and at least one sign in an area where gun sales occur.
The signs would have to be posted “conspicuously, in a manner that is easily read,” according to a draft of the regulation shared by McDermott’s office. They would have to be at least 8 1/2 -by-11 inches in size, with at least 30-point type, according to the draft, which mentions a study on the effectiveness of cigarette warning labels.
The signs would read: “WARNING: The presence of a firearm in the home significantly increases the risk of suicide, homicide, death during domestic violence disputes and unintentional deaths to children, household members and others.”
The signs also would encourage people experiencing distress or depression to access the Crisis Connections hotline. In addition to stores, the signs would need to be posted at sites where guns are transferred and at gun ranges.
“The goal isn’t to thwart gun sales or burden retailers,” McDermott said. “This is about conveying information.”
First violations would result in warnings, while subsequent violations would incur civil penalties of up to $100 per day. There are 136 individuals and stores in King County licensed to sell guns, according to McDermott’s office.
Whereas Seattle’s gun-storage legislation says guns must be kept “in a locked container,” McDermott’s would give owners the option, instead, of securing their firearms using trigger locks and other safety devices.
Seattle’s legislation treats violations as civil infractions with fines of up to $500 when a gun isn’t locked up. McDermott’s would treat violations as criminal misdemeanor infractions punishable by fines of up to $1,000 and jail for up to 90 days.
The legal arguments leveled by the gun-rights groups against Seattle’s legislation likely also could be leveled at McDermott’s.
The SAF and NRA have accused the city of breaking a Washington law that says only the state can regulate guns, “including the registration, licensing, possession, purchase, sale, acquisition, transfer, discharge, and transportation of firearms.”
SAF founder Alan Gottlieb criticized McDermott’s warnng-sign and storage proposals. “It’s none of the government’s business what means a person has in their bedroom to protect themselves and their family,” Gottlieb said.
“Cigarettes are obviously a public-health hazard. But you don’t ingest firearms, and firearms used lawfully and correctly are not a disease.”
Seattle officials have suggested the city’s legislation should be allowed because it relates to gun storage, rather than certain activities specified in the Washington law.
The law firm Orrick LLP and the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety have volunteered to represent Seattle in court without charge. McDermott has yet to secure any such pledge, but he says the prospect of a legal battle shouldn’t stop the county.
“Safe storage is a proven way to reduce incidences of gun violence,” he said.
Proponents have submitted about 360,000 signatures for state Initiative 1639, which among other provisions would impose new gun-storage requirements and require firearms sellers to display signs warning about criminal prosecutions for unsecure storage.
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