February 23, 2024

Pacifica Litigation Team Successfully Defends Washington’s Voter-Approved Gun Safety Measure

We are pleased to share that the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington today rejected the gun lobby’s lawsuit challenging Initiative 1639 (I-1639), the 2018 gun safety measure approved by 59% of Washington voters. I-1639 regulates semiautomatic assault rifles in three ways: requiring an enhanced background check before any sale, prohibiting their sale to anyone under 21, and confining in-person sales to those who reside in Washington State. The federal court’s decision upholding the latter provision is a victory for Washington voters and Pacifica client the Alliance for Gun Responsibility. The Alliance led the initiative campaign for I-1639 and intervened in this case to defend the law alongside the Washington Attorney General’s Office.

The case, Mitchell, et al. v. Atkins, et al., No. 3:19-cv-5106-JCC (W.D. Wash.), was filed in 2020 by Washington firearms dealers and other plaintiffs, including the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Second Amendment Foundation (SAF). The plaintiffs initially argued that I-1639 violated both the Second Amendment and the Dormant Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Last November, however, the plaintiffs abandoned their Second Amendment claim and dismissed the NRA from the lawsuit, leaving only the Commerce Clause challenge.

In today’s ruling, Judge John C. Coughenour held that I-1639’s nonresident sales provision is perfectly consistent with the Commerce Clause. First, Judge Coughenour rejected plaintiffs’ claim that the initiative “discriminates against interstate commerce,” reasoning that “it neither benefits in-state economic interests nor burdens out-of-state economic interests.” Then, applying the balancing test from the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Pike v. Bruce Church, Inc., the Court then held that, even if hypothetically the initiative had imposed a burden on interstate commerce, that burden would be far outweighed by I-1639’s “substantial benefit to public safety that the people of Washington voted for.”

The Court also noted that “mass shootings are demonstrably more lethal when the assailant uses a [semiautomatic assault rifle] than when other firearms are used,” and explained that I-1639 is “just another paradigmatic example of the police power which the Founders reposed in the States.” And Washington’s “public-safety interest” in extending an “existing safeguard on handgun sales to [semiautomatic assault rifle] sales” is “more than legitimate—it is compelling.”

This lawsuit represents the gun lobby’s fourth attempt to block I-1639 in the courts. Every attempt has failed. The Washington Supreme Court rejected SAF’s first two lawsuits in 2018, which sought to prevent I-1639 from even going to the voters. After I-1639 passed overwhelmingly, the Gun Owners of America, Inc. filed a lawsuit in state court to enjoin the initiative, which was rejected by the Pierce County Superior Court and the Washington Court of Appeals (the Washington Supreme Court denied review).

The Pacifica litigation team that helped defend I-1639 included partners Zach Pekelis, Kai Smith, Nick Brown, and Paul Lawrence; of counsel Sarah Washburn; associate Christopher Sanders; and former partner Greg Wong (now Deputy Mayor of the City of Seattle).

Click here for a PDF of the decision.