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Gun issue could give Wash Gov. Inslee lift for 2020 presidential run

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LOS ANGELES — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s gun control record could help him broaden his base of support beyond climate advocates if the Democrat decides to enter the 2020 presidential contest.

Certainly, Inslee isn’t the only declared or potential 2020 Democratic presidential contender to advocate stricter gun control laws. But his personal experience on the gun issue is somewhat unique — and he almost lost his political career over it.

Nearly a year ago, Inslee stood up to President Donald Trump at the White House on a hot-button issue: arming teachers with firearms.

“I did confront him on that, and by the way, he needs to be confronted more personally to his face,” Inslee told Imagala.com in an interview this week. “That doesn’t happen enough, frankly.”

In an event carried on live TV, Inslee stood up and confronted Trump on the president’s solution to school shootings — adding more guns to schools to make them safer. The clash took place at a White House meeting with governors to discuss school safety following the Feb. 14, 2018, mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

“I have listened to the first-grade teachers that don’t want to be pistol-packing first-grade teachers,” Inslee told the president. “I have listened to law enforcement who have said they don’t want to have to train teachers as law enforcement agencies which takes about six months.”

As Trump stood, Inslee told the president that teachers should be allowed to educate and “not be foisted upon this responsibility of packing heat in first-grade classes.” The governor concluded by suggesting “we need a little less tweeting here, a little more listening, and let’s just take that off the table and move forward.”

Inslee’s clash with Trump wasn’t just carried on television but also made national headlines, boosting the governor’s profile outside the Evergreen State. Inslee said this week that Trump’s idea of arming teachers is a “nutty idea” and the governor added that he expects to make a decision on whether to throw his hat in the ring for the 2020 presidential contest “in weeks, not months.”

The governor already has gained a reputation as a “carbon warrior.” He wrote a book about the climate issue back in 2007 when in Congress.

Inslee served more than a decade in Congress, and from two different districts. He also is a former criminal prosecutor and was a state legislator in Olympia before getting elected Washington’s 23rd governor in 2012 and re-elected in 2016.

“Inslee actually lost his congressional seat because of a vote that he took on the 1994 assault weapons ban,” said Ron Dotzauer, a Seattle-based former Democratic consultant who now runs the public relations firm Strategies 360. “He then represented the central part of Washington state, and there’s a lot of gun racks in the pick-up [trucks there].”

In the end, Inslee was targeted by the National Rifle Association for voting in favor of the 1994 federal legislation that barred the manufacture, sale and possession of combat-style assault weapons. A Republican took his seat in 1995 in Washington’s 4th Congressional District, a rural and conservative area of the state.

The 10-year assault weapons ban was signed into law in 1994 by then-President Bill Clinton but has since expired; attempts to bring it back have failed.

“He was in my office that day when he said he would take that vote [on the assault weapons ban],” recalled Dotzauer. “I said, ‘whoah OK’ — you got a problem.”

At the time, one Washington state paper described voting for the assault weapons ban as “political suicide” for politicians from rural areas. Some even blame the gun issue for Democrats’ loss of the House in 1994.

Yet talk of gun control has heated up again with the 2020 presidential contest and several mass shootings in the past year. Also, support for stricter gun laws remains historically high.

A Gallup Poll conducted in October 2018 found 61 percent of Americans support stricter laws on the sale of firearms, although that was off a recent high of 67 percent in March in the immediate aftermath of the Parkland school shooting. Still, the support for stricter gun laws remains higher than it was during the time Obama was in office.

“From my discussions with legislators since November and with folks who are interested in running, they see the transformational shift that I think started really in earnest with the reaction that our nation had to the Parkland shooting,” said Kris Brown, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

As for Inslee, he staged a comeback after losing his seat in the rural district. He returned to Congress four years later in the 1st Congressional District, a liberal-leaning district north of Seattle. He held the seat for more than a decade before running for governor in 2012.

Outside California, Washington has some of the toughest gun laws enacted among the states. Inslee campaigned successfully for Initiative 1491, a 2016 measure that made it more difficult for “high risk” individuals to obtain firearms. The measure allowed family, police and household members to obtain a court order to temporarily prevent someone from getting access to guns if were deemed a danger to themselves or others.

Last year, Washington voters approved Initiative 1639, a measure Inslee supported that raised the age to purchase semiautomatic rifles to 21, from 18. The initiative also expanded background checks for rifles and added other new regulations, including firearm education and new standards for secured gun storage.

“Many in D.C. remain in the grips of the NRA,” Inslee said Jan.15 during a state of the state address. “We are the state that stands up for common-sense gun safety reforms.”

The new age limits for purchasing assault weapons went into effect in January although other major regulations under I-1639 do not begin until July. Some county sheriffs in the state have said they won’t prosecute violators, and the measure is being challenged in the courts.

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