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Washington state is moving to ban or restrict the sale of assault weapons

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Washington has become the 10th state in the U.S. to restrict the sale of assault-style weapons. The bans are a response to recent mass shootings, and they're mostly being taken up in states run by Democrats. That's setting up a confrontation in the courts over whether such bans are even enforceable. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Traditionally, Washington has had permissive gun laws, but that's been changing in the last few years. The state has restricted large-capacity ammunition magazines. It's raised the age to buy semi-automatic rifles to 21. And now this...

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PATTY KUDERER: We're here to say enough is enough.

KASTE: That's State Senator Patty Kuderer, a Democrat, calling on her colleagues earlier this month to ban new sales of a long list of semi-automatic rifles and other guns broadly categorized as assault weapons.

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KUDERER: I don't want to see another life taken in a mass shooting. I don't want to see any more gun violence. I was, quite frankly, fed up at Columbine.

KASTE: At the time of the Columbine school massacre in Colorado in 1999, the U.S. had a federal ban on assault weapons, but that law expired in 2004. Sam Levy is the regional legal director at Everytown for Gun Safety.

SAM LEVY: Unfortunately, in this environment, federally, there's no federal help coming in terms of regulating these deadly weapons. And so the responsibility falls to the states to do what they can.

KASTE: States such as California and New York have had their own bans for years, and homicide rates are lower there than the national average. Assault weapons account for a very small percentage of homicides, but they are used in most high-profile mass shootings such as Uvalde, Texas. After that tragedy last May, more states passed assault weapons bans - first Delaware, then Illinois, now Washington, where the gun stores saw the predictable rush of customers as the legislation neared passage.

AUSTIN CHANG: We ran about a year and a half worth of sales out through these last two months.

KASTE: Austin Chang owns Iron Monkey Rifleworks in suburban Seattle. His displays are mostly empty now, save for the odd rarity like a modified Kalashnikov. Chang is surprisingly accepting of this new ban.

CHANG: We've seen such horrible things happen with firearms. And, of course, honestly, being in the industry, I, too, feel responsible, you know, in some way - not literally. But I understand what they're trying to do. I know that they won't get the result that they want.

KASTE: He says his customers are not the problem, but in a Democratic-run state, he doesn't see how you can turn back this tide of gun restrictions. Farther away from Seattle, in Vancouver, Wash., Dan Mitchell is not giving up.

DAN MITCHELL: There's multiple lawsuits that are already prepared, and those will be filed the moment the ink is dry.

KASTE: Mitchell also owns a gun store, and he's an eager plaintiff in Second Amendment lawsuits, which have cropped up in almost every state with a ban like this. He sees these bans as unconstitutional, especially after the Supreme Court's Bruen decision last year.

MITCHELL: Bruen really did a fine job of requiring states to prove that there was similar restrictions at the time of our founding or the passage of the Bill of Rights in 1791.

KASTE: He expects the courts will eventually have to affirm Americans' traditional right to these guns, even though AR-15s didn't exist two centuries ago. Mitchell says that doesn't matter because traditional rights also apply to new technologies.

MITCHELL: Did they have telephones when they signed the Bill of Rights? Why is our phone conversation protected if we didn't have phones back then?

KASTE: But other considerations may also come into play under Bruen, says Andrew Willinger. He's the executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law.

ANDREW WILLINGER: If you say, well, there's a historical tradition of restricting dangerous weapons more generally - right? - things like bowie knives, Bruen says that if there's technological changes or unprecedented societal concerns that you should use a more nuanced analysis.

KASTE: In other words, does public concern about the sheer lethality of assault-style weapons make them a special case - guns so powerful they can be restricted? As states passed laws that Congress won't, Willinger predicts the courts will contradict each other quite a bit on this question before we get a final answer. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.