I-676 Opponents Tout Gun-Storage Law -- Initiative Backers Call Promise Of Legislation A Ruse

Some opponents of the handgun measure Initiative 676 are quietly laying the groundwork for an alternative proposal to the Legislature that would hold gun owners responsible for safe storage of their pistols.

This year's initiative, while promoting mandatory education and licensing of the state's 1 million handgun owners, does not contain an element many law-enforcement officials say they need: the power to punish people who irresponsibly store their handguns.

There is no specific law for that now in Washington state.

The National Rifle Association and some local groups resisted a "safe-storage" proposal earlier this year, and were widely viewed as the primary political force that killed it.

But with handgun safety now high on the minds of Washington voters as they consider the merits of Initiative 676, gun-rights groups are feeling some pressure to address an issue they continue to downplay but do not deny exists: accidental shootings involving children.

"We will be pushing something, and my hope is that we can have more gun groups supporting it," Alan Gottlieb, executive director of Washington Citizens Against Regulatory Excess, said of safe-storage legislation.

Gottlieb said he plans to meet with law-enforcement officials and Republican lawmakers immediately after Tuesday's election to discuss strategy for a "safe-storage" proposal to the Legislature.

King County Prosecutor Norm Maleng and Pierce County Prosecutor

John Ladenburg also have expressed interest in working with gun groups and Mothers Against Violence in America (MAVIA) on legislation.

"We'll take the issue on if we have to. If it means fighting the NRA, we'll do it," said Ladenburg, a leading member of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

The prosecutors association has traditionally steered clear of gun legislation in Olympia - measures that frequently draw strong emotion and vigorous opposition from the NRA. But the association may, for the first time, make an endorsement on a safe-storage bill and put "our political muscle behind it," Ladenburg said.

Much of the interest lies in reviving the "Whitney Graves" bill, which was named after an 8-year-old Marysville girl who was accidentally killed by a gunshot last year while playing with a friend. The bill would have made it a gross misdemeanor for a gun owner to leave a loaded firearm in a place where an unsupervised child is likely to gain access to it. The proposal also would have required retailers to offer customers a safe-storage device, such as a trigger lock or lock box.

Though supported by a unique coalition that included MAVIA, Washington Ceasefire and Gottlieb's Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, it was rebuffed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.

The authors of Initiative 676 say they did not include a safe-storage provision in their measure because they wanted to focus more on prevention. A law that punishes irresponsible gun owners is needed, they agree, but does not accomplish their primary goal: to prevent accidental shootings from occurring in the first place.

The current proposal - endorsed by MAVIA, the Washington State Medical Association and emergency-room physicians - would mandate purchase of trigger-locking devices for handguns and safety training for owners. It would also require licensing of handgun owners.

Whether a more narrowly focused legislative proposal has any chance of success in Olympia remains unknown. State Rep. Ida Ballasiotes, R-Mercer Island, a sponsor of the Whitney Graves bill, figures the NRA will again be a key factor.

Gun-rights groups point to the state's reckless endangerment statute as a prospective stick already available for use against irresponsible gun owners. It makes no reference to gun storage or prospective penalties for child access to firearms.

And in a state where the Western tradition of gun ownership remains strong, some prosecutors say they're unwilling to pursue such cases without state law behind them.

Tom Wales, a federal prosecutor who serves as co-chairman of the Initiative 676 campaign, called pledges about approval of a safe-storage law "a classic political maneuver" by opponents to divert voters' attention from the measure.

He expressed particular frustration with Maleng and Ladenburg, neither of whom were involved in last year's Whitney Graves bill but who have very recently professed strong interest in gun safety.

"Where were they last year when this bill was before the Legislature?" Wales said. "The fact is, they have both come out in 11th hour against I-676. Norm Maleng must be running for governor again, and John Ladenburg must be running for attorney general."

Wales said I-676 supporters are focused solely on winning next week's election but added, "When the election is over, we will be looking for any additional measures that will save kids' lives."

Barbara A. Serrano's phone message number is 206-464-2927. Her e-mail address is: bser-new@seatimes.com