Policing, gun control chief topics in 17th LD town hall


Bills addressing changes in law enforcement and firearms was a major focus for legislators representing East Clark County during a virtual town hall hosted May 3.

The event featured Washington State 17th Legislative District Sen. Lynda Wilson and state Reps. Paul Harris and Kevin Waters. Ten days following the conclusion of the 2023 Legislative Session, the Republicans touched on topics ranging from bills they authored that got passed to the Interstate 5 bridge replacement.

Police pursuit bill passes

The discussion’s major focus was on policing bills this past session that passed, or didn’t. One of the bills that passed dealt with police pursuits.

Part of the Republicans’ push for law changes was reincorporating the level of “reasonable suspicion” to engage in a pursuit, as opposed to the higher standard of “probable cause” as was placed on all but a few types of suspected crimes.

“We did get that, but there was a lot left on the table,” Wilson said. Among those suspected crimes not moved back to reasonable suspicion were reckless driving and auto theft.

“So they still can’t go after those people,” Wilson said.

Waters also voted for the police pursuit bill, which he said was a step in the right direction.

He said sheriffs he spoke to explained they “would like something, so this is better than nothing,” but he acknowledged it wasn’t perfect.

“There still is a lot of work that needs to be done on that bill, and I expect us to be building off of what we did this year and take it into next session,” Waters said.

Of the three, Harris was the lone “no” vote on the police pursuit bill.

“I could have voted ‘yes’ because I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Harris said. He wanted the police to have more latitude when responding to suspected crimes, leading him to not give his support.

“We need to let them be policemen and do the job,” Harris said.

He equated trusting police with trusting teachers.

“I had good teachers, I had some bad teachers, but I think the vast majority of my teachers are phenomenal,” Harris said.

Drug possession bill fails, Inslee calls special session for fix

The lawmakers also talked about a bill designed to address a state Supreme Court decision from 2021 which decriminalized simple drug possession. A stopgap bill made during that year’s session to address the change is set to expire in July, and an effort for a permanent fix failed in a House vote on the last day of this year’s time in Olympia.

Harris, like all Republican members of the House representing Clark County, voted “no” on the version of the bill that made it into their chamber.

“They didn’t want any accountability in the bill at all,” Harris said.

He said the bill would have allowed suspects of simple drug possession to enter drug rehabilitation and not complete it. They could walk out and be back on the street to potentially violate the law again, he said.

“You would continue to spend your tax dollars in sending them to rehab as many times as they wanted to go, and they would never go into the legal system, ever,” Harris said.

Harris noted the Democrats that joined Republicans in defeating the bill had the opposite ideology behind their decision to tank the fix.

“Republicans in the House voted ‘no’ because we wanted accountability. The Seattle Democrats voted ‘no’ because they didn’t want it to even be a gross misdemeanor,” Harris said.

Following the failure of a bill to pass, Gov. Jay Inslee called for a special session to start May 16, specifically to address the issue.

Wilson would like to see a bill similar to what made it out of the Senate, which she had voted for.

“It has accountability,” Wilson said.

If the Legislature is not able to come up with a state-level fix, every local jurisdiction will be able to create their own law. She said the bill as it passed the Senate had support of organizations representing sheriffs, police chiefs and prosecutors, as well as dozens of mayors across the state.

“Really, you have to talk about the people that are on the ground, right? It’s the people that are actually having to deal with the instances of drug use and how they are going to go about it,” Wilson said.

Waters said the broader work on police reform needed to take into account both law enforcement and the advocates for those in jail or on the streets.

“I think right now, that is the biggest hurdle, how do we get those two sides to talk and have actually good conversations,” Waters said.

Harris said there was a tendency to flip from one side of an issue to the other when it came to police reform.

“We need to be careful as we change laws. We need to hold police accountable, but we also need to hold the criminals accountable,” Harris said.

Lawmakers concerned on firearms bills

The Democrat-controlled legislature passed a number of gun control bills this year. Wilson said one of those bills would make federal firearms licensees accountable for crimes others commit with guns sold by those license holders.

Wilson believed the licensee accountability law will receive a court injunction “probably very soon” because of effects on interstate commerce. It could lead to lawsuits against out-of-state companies based on firearms they manufactured being used in crimes in Washington.

“That doesn’t make any sense to me, and it’s not going to accomplish what they think it’s going to accomplish,” Wilson said.

Another law signed by Inslee bans a list of firearms determined as “assault weapons” by the bill text. Wilson expected the law to be overturned in federal court based on similar cases nationwide reaching the same result.

Although Washington ranked in the top-10 states on strictest gun control since 2018, Wilson said shots fired events have broken records every year since 2020.

The legislators raised concerns on how broad the assault weapons ban was. Waters said the first 22-caliber gun he owned would be outlawed under the new legislation.

Harris added although he doesn’t own a gun himself, his brother, who uses guns strictly to target shoot, would have his own firearms included in the ban.

“I know many people think, ‘oh, it’s just the AR-15 we’re after, Paul, and that’s all we’re doing,’” Harris said. “Tragically, these bills … are not drafted that way.”

Harris said the pursuit of gun restrictions is largely a futile effort considering what ends up happening federally.

“We continue to pass these (laws) and they end up in the district and other courts and they get overturned,” Harris said.

He said gun control bills pass every year, but he doesn’t see an effect on gun violence.

“Either we’re not passing the right bills, or we’re headed in the wrong direction,” Harris said.