Seattle’s gun-safety law goes into effect tomorrow; more legal challenges sure to follow

This afternoon the Mayor’s Office sent out a press release announcing that tomorrow the city’s gun-safety legislation goes into effect. But even though it won its first round in court, the city’s legal battles over this ordinance have just begun.

The ordinance requires gun owners to lock up their firearms in an approved container when not in control of the owner. It imposes penalties for violations of the law, and more severe ones if the gun is subsequently used by an unauthorized person.

This sounds like a very reasonable law — and it is. But there’s a problem: it’s preempted under Washington state law, which reserves solely for the state  “the entire field of firearms regulation.” The city has offered a tortured reading of that law to make the case that a local ordinance requiring storage of firearms is not pre-empted.

After the law passed, the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation sued to block it,  on behalf of two gun owners. But King County Superior Court Judge Barbara Linde threw out the case on a procedural technicality.

The rules for challenging a law that has not yet gone into effect are complicated: it’s allowed, but the plaintiffs need to jump several hurdles to prove both that they have standing to sue and that the law will inevitably violate their rights. In proving that they have standing to sue, plaintiffs must show that they will violate the ordinance, either explicitly by intent or unavoidably by circumstances beyond their control. And it’s this aspect of the plaintiffs’ complaint that Judge Linde found lacking: the plaintiffs claimed that they had “a strong desire” to keep their firearms unlocked and usable in their homes, but didn’t explicitly say that they intended to do so. Because of this, the judge found that the plaintiffs lacked standing and dismissed the case. She also denied the plaintiffs the opportunity to correct that statement in an amended complaint to clearly state their intent, and dismissed the case “with prejudice” so the plaintiffs can’t re-file it with a corrected statement (which just seems petty for the judge to do).

The plaintiffs have appealed Linde’s ruling, which will play out over the next few months. But regardless of the outcome of the appeal, now that the ordinance is actually going into effect, the standard that must be reached to challenge it has changed. The plaintiffs can either re-file their complaint anytime starting tomorrow, or wait for someone to be charged with violating the ordinance and then challenge the ordinance’s legality as part of the defense against that charge. The latter case is the easier legal path because the alleged harm to the gun owner’s rights is no longer hypothetical. But it raises another interesting question: how the city intends to enforce the ordinance. The police have no way to know whether a gun owner is violating the law unless either they are invited into someone’s home, or they trace a gun used in a crime back to its owner and the owner confesses to not keeping it locked up.

The City of Seattle has not explained how it plans to enforce the ordinance or under what circumstances it would actually charge someone with a violation, but expect that the first time it does the NRA and Second Amendment Foundation will be back in court — if not before. Despite the Mayor’s crowing that “a King County Superior Court judge dismissed a lawsuit brought by NRA which attempted to block the necessary and commonsense law,” no judge has yet ruled on the legality of the ordinance. But that will inevitably happen, and it will be a tough day in court for the city when it does.