Stevens County takes hit in disputing new gun control law

RaeLynn Ricarte

A visiting judge sided with the Washington Attorney General’s Office last week in a local case disputing an alleged lack of due process in a new gun control law.
Judge Steve Dixon of Adams County said courts had long upheld the right of mental health counselors to detain a person for a 72 hour evaluation, so losing access to firearms for six months would not be any more restrictive.
“A person is detained because he is an imminent danger to himself or others  — if that person has access to firearms, he will be much more dangerous,” said Dixon, who was brought onboard after Stevens County Superior Court Judges Jessica Reeves and Patrick Monasmith declined to hear the case.
Will Ferguson, special deputy prosecutor for Stevens County, said Dixon's verdict will now be appealed, and the case could possibly be fast track ed directly to the Supreme Court. He said the legal dispute has broad implications because it deals with the authority of mental health counselors to strip away gun rights without a court hearing.
“I respect Judge Dixon’s decision, he articulated it well, but it just comes down to interpretation of the law,” said Ferguson. 
Dixon told Ferguson and attorney Jeffrey Grant, who handles complex litigation for Attorney General Bob Ferguson, that their
respective briefs were very well researched and written.
Will Ferguson argued that ownership of firearms is a constitutionally protected right at the state and federal levels. He said the new law, which went into effect in late July, allows firearms to be removed from a person’s home at the directive of a mental health counselor. He said not only is due process violated, the burden is on the patient to initiate court action to have his or her weapons returned earlier than six months.
“Essentially, the citizen is being punished for a crime that has neither been alleged or proven,” said Ferguson.
He said in cases of dishonorable discharge from the military, or domestic violence, the person accused of bad conduct is given a court hearing to determine if he or she can retain firearms. 
While the six month ban is underway, Ferguson said the person who has had guns removed from his or her home is left without the means of self-defense, which is the fundamental reason for gun rights.
“The Legislature passes a law that takes my gun rights away and I have to go to court to get them back —that’s not right,” he said. 
Grant argued that more restrictive laws were in effect in other states. He said California seized firearms for five years following a mental health hold and Pennsylvania for a lifetime. 
“The Supreme Court has been very clear that the right to possess a firearm is not unlimited,” he said. 
Grant said the greater good was at stake; that the law had been enacted to protect people from violence at the hand of someone in a mental health crisis. 
“The Legislature has the right and power to do what has been done,” he said. 
Stevens County Prosecutor Tim Rasmussen initiated the case last summer after the Involuntary Treatment Act —Firearms went into effect. The new law allows a counselor to temporarily have weapons removed from a person determined to be “gravely disabled, a danger to themselves and/or a danger to others, based upon a mental disability and/or substance abuse.”
The county commission agreed with Rasmussen that the law should be challenged because it allows gun rights to be stripped away even if the person who was detained is released without involuntary commitment.
In October, Dixon ruled against the county’s request to have restraining orders enacted against Stevens County Sheriff Brad Manke and Northeast Washington Alliance Counseling so they were prohibited from taking away guns while the case was pending.
Rasmussen said gun rights are enshrined in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and in Article 1, Section 24, of the Washington State Constitution. He said Washington officials seem intent on undermining those rights and it is the responsibility of local government and citizens to challenge that over-reach.