Washington Supreme Court tosses City of Edmonds firearm storage ordinance

This morning the Washington State Supreme Court ruled that an ordinance passed by the City of Edmonds requiring secure storage of firearms and assigning liability for unauthorized access to unsecured firearms was pre-empted by state law.

RCW 9.41.290 reads:

The state of Washington hereby fully occupies and preempts the entire field of firearms regulation within the boundaries of the state, including the registration, licensing, possession, purchase, sale, acquisition, transfer, discharge, and transportation of firearms, or any other element relating to firearms or parts thereof, including ammunition and reloader components. Cities, towns, and counties or other municipalities may enact only those laws and ordinances relating to firearms that are specifically authorized by state law, as in RCW 9.41.300, and are consistent with this chapter. Such local ordinances shall have the same penalty as provided for by state law. Local laws and ordinances that are inconsistent with, more restrictive than, or exceed the requirements of state law shall not be enacted and are preempted and repealed, regardless of the nature of the code, charter, or home rule status of such city, town, county, or municipality.

The City of Edmonds, joined by the City of Seattle and some other Washington cities, argued two points in their defense. First, they argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing to challenge that portion of the ordinance setting out new penalties for allowing access to unsecured firearms because they had not (yet) suffered an “injury in fact” due to its passage, a requirement under the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act. The Supreme Court ruled that the UDJA was intended to prevent plaintiffs from asserting other people’s rights, but has a low bar for allowing people to sue to protect their own rights if a law threatens harm upon them. Thus it found that the plaintiffs had standing to sue.

The City had presented a tortured argument as to why its ordinance was not preempted, citing other cases where the Court had allowed a firearm-related law to remain on the books. Those include: a tax on firearms (which the Counrt held was not a “regulation”); a prohibition on firearms in government buildings (which is not a “law of general application”); and regulations of places where firearms may be shot for practice, training or recreation (also not a law of general application). But the Court concluded that the Edmonds ordinance is none of these things; it is a law of general application that directly regulates firearms, which state law clearly preempts.

When a law lists examples, as RCW 9.41.290 does, they are often the subject of debate as to whether the list is “illustrative” or “exclusive”: is it merely providing some examples, or is it providing the entire set of cases covered by the law? In this case the City argues that the list in RCW 9.41.290 was exclusive and didn’t include storage. But the Court was having none of that and deemed the list illustrative, pointing out that it says clearly that “the entire field of firearms regulation” is preempted.

Today’s ruling is bad news for Seattle’s own very similar gun storage and access ordinance, which is the subject of a similar lawsuit that is still pending in King County Superior Court after the Court of Appeals rejected an attempt to have it thrown out for the same “lack of standing” argument that the Supreme Court just rejected in the Edmonds case. Expect the plaintiffs (the same ones as the Edmonds case) to file for summary judgment now that the state Supreme Court has made its ruling.

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