Judge declines to block enforcement of Washington’s semiautomatic gun ban

New restrictions can remain in place while Second Amendment advocates challenge them with a lawsuit in federal court.

By: - June 6, 2023 8:25 pm

(Photo by George Frey/Getty Images)

Washington’s new prohibitions on the sale, distribution and importation of semiautomatic firearms can stay in effect while a challenge against them plays out in federal court, a judge in the case ruled Tuesday.

Judge Robert J. Bryan issued a 14-page order denying a request from gun rights advocates for a preliminary injunction to temporarily block enforcement of the law. The plaintiffs who brought the case argue that the state’s “assault weapons” ban violates their Second Amendment rights to bear arms. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the measure, House Bill 1240, into law in April.

Supporters of the law point out that shooters have used the types of weapons it bans repeatedly in massacres at schools and other public places across the U.S.

In declining to issue the injunction, Bryan struck an unsympathetic tone toward the plaintiffs’ claims and cast doubt on whether they would be successful as the case moves forward.

“Considering the exceptional dangerousness of these weapons, the public interest in their regulation by the State outweighs the Plaintiffs’ desire to purchase more assault weapons,” Bryan wrote. “In light of recent mass deaths caused by assailants using assault weapons, it is appropriate for governmental bodies to find ways to protect the public from dangerous weapons, within the limits of the Second Amendment.”

A central question in the legal dispute is whether Washington’s law can withstand scrutiny under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from last year – New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. The precedent set by that case requires gun restrictions adopted by states to be consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation in order for them to be constitutional.

When arguing to deny the motion for the injunction, lawyers for Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s office outlined a range of historical restrictions on weapons that authorities have deemed to be too dangerous, ranging from different clubs and knives to machine guns.

Bryan expressed an openness to that line of argument. 

“Each of the above arms restrictions, including bans and restrictions on carrying, arose from the same historical pattern,” he wrote, after walking through various prohibitions adopted in the past. “The weapon was invented, perhaps for the military, became widely popular with civilians, was associated with criminal use, and was then regulated by the States.”

“HB 1240’s prohibition on the manufacture, import, and sale of semiautomatic assault weapons responds to the same pattern: technological weapons change that sets forth unprecedented social concerns,” the judge added.


Ferguson touted Bryan’s denial of the injunction.

“We remain undefeated against the gun lobby in court,” Ferguson said in a statement. “This common-sense gun reform will save lives by restricting access to the preferred weapon of mass shooters.”

Ferguson jointly requested HB 1240 with Inslee. The attorney general, who is exploring a run for governor in 2024, began pushing for a state ban on semiautomatic weapons, like AR-15s, following a 2016 shooting at a house party in Mukilteo.

The plaintiffs who sought the rejected injunction include Washington residents who say they would buy the banned weapons if they could, a gun shop in Vancouver, Washington unable to sell the firearms, and two advocacy groups–the Second Amendment Foundation and the Firearms Policy Coalition.

The Firearms Policy Coalition declined to comment on the order.

Adam Kraut, executive director of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in an email the group was disappointed by Bryan’s denial. “Of course, because the law has not been enjoined, it prevents Washingtonians from being able to fully exercise their right to keep and bear arms,” he said. “We are currently reviewing our legal options.”

The judge also emphasized that the gun shop in the case, “has no independent Second Amendment right to sell firearms separate from its customer’s right to acquire them.”

In terms of what happens next, there are multiple possibilities. One is that the challengers could appeal the rejected injunction to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Or they could carry on at the district court level, where if they fail to get an eventual ruling they’re happy with, they would have the option to appeal that decision to the 9th Circuit.

The lawsuit, which is before the U.S. District Court at Tacoma, is one of at least three that gun rights advocates have filed against the semiautomatic firearm restrictions. 

Washington is one of 10 states to have adopted prohibitions on semiautomatic rifles, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, which pushes for tighter gun laws.

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Bill Lucia
Bill Lucia

Bill Lucia is the Standard’s editor-in-chief. He’s covered state and local policy and politics for a decade, nationwide for Government Executive’s Route Fifty and in Seattle for Crosscut.