Gun store owners across Washington state say that AR-15 sales are through the roof due to a proposed assault weapon ban that’s currently making its way through the legislature.
Democrat legislators in Washington have been floating an assault weapon ban for years, but earlier this month marked the first time that such a proposal actually advanced, clearing the House with a 55 to 42 vote.
House Bill 1240, which would create an official definition of “assault weapon” and prohibit all future sales or transfers of firearms that fall into that category, was introduced at the urging of Gov. Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson. It still has a ways to go: next week, a Senate Committee will vote on it, then it’ll go to a full vote before the Democrat-majority Senate.
But gun store owners told VICE News that they weren’t feeling very confident about things shaking out in their favor. “It looks bleak,” said Tom Engel, owner of i5 Guns & Ammo in Lacey, Washington.
Washington is considered a solidly Democratic state, but has deep-red rural pockets whose residents have found themselves increasingly at odds with their liberal, urban counterparts; a 2020 study identified it as one of the top five most polarized states in the U.S. The stark cultural and political divides has fueled simmering anti-government sentiment on the right, which has threatened to boil over on particularly hot-button issues, like vaccines, the results of the 2020 election—and potentially now guns.
If House Bill 1240 passes, Washington would become the 10th state with an assault weapon ban on the books.
California, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York, all passed their own versions between 1990 and 2000. The federal government passed an assault weapon ban (which created a federal definition of semiautomatic assault weapon) in 1994, but that expired under the Bush Administration a decade later. Since its expiry, the number of civilian-owned AR-15 style weapons soared: by 2022, there were 24 million in circulation, according to the National Shooting Sports Foundation. And as ownership of these high-powered weapons increased, so has the number of deadly massacres. Some variation of the AR-15 has been used in some of the deadliest mass shootings in recent years, including the shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, last year, which left 19 students and two teachers dead.
Amid the steady drumbeat of mass shootings involving AR-style weapons and repeated failure by the federal government to re-enact the ban, some state legislatures have started taking matters into their own hands. Last year, Delaware banned assault weapons, followed by Illinois this January. Both laws were immediately met with legal challenges from pro-gun groups, which are ongoing.
In Illinois, one of those challenges was brought on behalf of a gun store owner who says his business had suffered as a result of the ban.
Independent gun store owners in Washington told VICE News that they believe any assault weapon ban would ultimately be overturned, but in the meantime they’re preparing for the worst. Engel said that some out-of-state firearm dealers are acting like the ban is already in place and have shut down transfers of semi-automatic weapons to his store, while other dealers have been holding sales and prioritizing shipments to Washington
Even though the future looks uncertain, business is booming for now. Engel says that despite some dealers hitting “pause,” he’s exhausted his inventory and has seen a 10 or 20 fold increase in firearm transfers.
James Campbell, a retiree who co-owns South Sound Guns in Olympia, Washington, said that sales were “ridiculous right now.” “We’re working extra hours and everything to try to keep up,” said Campbell.
Anthony Paulman, who owns Tactical Weapons in TumTum, Washington, near the border with Idaho, says they’ve seen about a 50 percent increase in sales, largely driven by people buying AR-15’s, and that the customers have been a mix of first time and long-time gun owners. Paulman says he’s banking on a provision of the bill that says gunsmiths could continue to offer repairs for AR-15’s owned prior to the ban, and is considering shifting his business to focus on repairs and out-of-state sales. Another gun store owner was so busy with customers at 10 a.m. that he had to cut our conversation short.
Cortlandt Martin, owner of Gun Nation LLC near Lake Stevens, Washington, said that the state government had been taken over by a “bunch of commies,” and that an assault weapon ban would “devastate '' business.
Meanwhile, on forums dedicated to gun culture in Washington, gun owners are bragging about their latest purchases.
On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Law and Justice convened a hearing on the bill. One person in the audience had an NRA T-shirt on, and clutched a folder emblazoned with a sticker of the Gadsden “Don’t Tread On Me” flag. Sitting next to him was a man in a Hawaiian shirt under a leather jacket, which could have been a coincidence but it’s worth noting that Hawaiian shirts have been co-opted by adherents of the anti-government Boogaloo movement. (It was 42 degrees Fahrenheit in Olympia on Thursday).
Two mothers who lost children in mass shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Las Vegas, testified about the deadliness of the weapons.
“Like many others, we have agonized over the existence of assault weapons in our state,” said Margaret Heldring, founder of the group Grandmothers Against Gun Violence. “They migrated to civilian life where they do not belong, they kill and injure in ways rapidly that horrify even the most seasoned emergency room doctors.”
On Tuesday, the Senate Executive Committee will vote on the bill.