The Washington State legislature is working on bills that criminize open carry at protests. Puget Sound John Brown Gun Club stands against the passing of these laws because they are vaguely worded and impact marginalized groups acting in defense of their communities. In Washington state, gun control measures aimed at open carry have a history of targeting and criminalizing Black activists.

Senate Bill 5038 prohibits open carry at public demonstrations, and is the sort of law that would have criminalized actions by the Black Panthers, or the Deacons for Defense. We’ve seen this sort of racism and classism before, when then-governor of California Ronald Reagan signed the Mulford Act to ban the open carry of firearms to disarm Black civil rights protesters and activists.

We know that this law will not be enforced equally. Various WA police departments have repeatedly refused to leverage existing laws against right-wing open carry demonstrations. The power to make the subjective decisions of enforcement for these laws is given to the same police that watched QAnon/proud boy types, including a literal armed Nazi, storm the governors mansion without stopping them.

The bill is vague and enforcement would be completely at the discretion of any police officer on the scene. Keep in mind that we have possibly the largest representation of police officers at the January 6th Trump coup. These are the people expected to use their discretion, after many have already made their allegiances clear.

If this bill passes, people the coup-attending police support will continue to open carry without consequences and be allowed to do so, but it will remove the ability for left-leaning activists to mount a response.

Last year, the highest increase in new firearm ownership was from Black men and women. In 2020, King county did NOT issue Concealed Pistol Licenses for the majority of the year. Normally, the turnaround time is 30 days. Currently, the soonest one could obtain a permit is June 2021 or later. Open carry of firearms remains the one available legal avenue for people to carry a firearm for self defense for those who can’t conceal carry because of the current state of licensing in Washington.

Even if you decide to carry outside of protests, your compliance with the law is not guaranteed. SB 5038 has an entrapment zone of 250 feet. If you come in within that distance of a “permitted demonstration” you will be at risk of committing an arrestable offense punished by up to a year in prison. Worse yet, a permitted demonstration by the bill’s definition could be any march, vigil, sit-in, or picketing with one or more persons. In Seattle, it’s very possible you will walk into such an event by accident.

A related house bill, House Bill 1283, is almost worse. It criminalizes groups of people carrying firearms if somebody subjectively feels threatened, and again, enforcement is done by police. This bill only creates new criminals; brandishing weapons or intimidating people is already illegal. (Note briefly that 1969’s House Bill No. 123, which criminalized displaying firearms in a subjectively “intimidating” manner, was passed in record speed and was targeted at Seattle’s Black Panthers chapter, who carried in defense of Black students who had been attacked by white students at Rainier Beach High School.)

Don’t let these bills block left-leaning activists from being able to protect our communities, when right-wing gun owners will likely still keep carrying in public with support of the police. Call your representatives and evangelize to everyone else for why gun control like this ends up being used against the people who need defense the most.

Black Panthers carrying in Olympia, Washington, in protest of a state bill targeting open carry. (1969)Black Panthers carrying in Olympia, Washington, in protest of a state bill targeting open carry. (1969)