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South King Fire and Rescue changes gun policy | Public may now carry on district property

Gun advocate Jim Beal talks with South King Fire Commissioner James Fossos at last Thursday’s special meeting. The commissioners changed a policy to allow the public to carry guns on district property. - Neal McNamara, The Mirror
Gun advocate Jim Beal talks with South King Fire Commissioner James Fossos at last Thursday’s special meeting. The commissioners changed a policy to allow the public to carry guns on district property.
— image credit: Neal McNamara, The Mirror

The public may now carry guns on the property of South King Fire and Rescue after a policy banning the practice was changed by the board of commissioners.

The commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to revise a longstanding gun policy for employees and the public. The revised policy still prohibits South King employees from carrying guns while on the job.

The legality of the policy had been questioned in recent weeks by members of the public and attracted the attention of gun enthusiasts. Three men attended the meeting openly carrying guns/pistols. They were prepared to ask the commissioners to change the policy.

Fire Chief Al Church said the policy was revised after the district reviewed similar policies held by the cities of Federal Way and Des Moines. He said that no threats — legal or otherwise — had been made against the department, but that the policy had been talked about on pro-gun websites.

“While we feel our old policy was legal,” Church said, “we think it makes sense to make a change that’s more in line with the other cities’ policies.”

Reading from a prepared statement, fire commission chairman Bill Gates left open the possibility of changing the policy back at a future date.

“We have for many years maintained a policy prohibiting the possession of firearms on our property by employees and visitors. We feel our policy is a good one that promotes workplace safety,” he said. “We will monitor whether the advised policy as applied over time adequately protects the safety of our employees, public officials and members of the public. If not, we will revisit the issue in the future and revise our policy accordingly.”

The city allows members of the public to carry while on municipal property. State law prohibits the carrying of guns in a few specific places, including courthouses, jails, police stations and mental health facilities. But state law pre-empts localities from enacting laws stricter than state guns laws.

The right of a municipal employer to ban its employees from carrying guns was upheld in a state Supreme Court case, Cherry vs. Seattle Metro. That case, from the early 1990s, involved a bus driver who was fired for carrying various weapons, including a gun, while at work.

Three Federal Way police officers were at Thursday’s meeting at the request of the fire district, said Commander Steve Neal.

“We’re here on any legal issue that might come up,” Neal said.

The three men who came to the meeting carrying guns were upbeat, talking to fire officials and police officers. One of the men, Tobin Titus, wearing a button down shirt and a holstered gun, cheerfully snapped photos of the meeting.

“I caught wind that the fire chief and council here have a policy banning firearms from the public in the public places of buildings, which is in violation of state law,” said gun advocate Nick Smith. “We always say a right not exercised is a right lost.”

When asked why one needs to carry a gun in a public place, and the possible effects of a citizen openly carrying, the men had differing answers.

“Government officials, anti-gun people and all this and that keep coming up with all kinds of excuses to ban our Second Amendment rights,” said Jim Beal, a Des Moines resident, on why he came to the meeting. “It’s the Second Amendment of the Constitution. It’s just as important as the first. If we don’t have the (Second Amendment), we could lose all the others.”

Titus, a Redmond resident, said that carrying a gun at public meetings is necessary because they and other public places can sometimes be dangerous. He referenced a recent incident in Florida where a man held a school board hostage with a gun.

“You never know what people are going to do,” he said. “I like to be prepared for that situation. I never want to have to use (my gun). I am content if it never has to leave its holster — except for target shooting.”

Smith said he would not want to be excluded from bringing his daughters on a tour of a fire station because he carries a gun.

“I should be able to do that and not be discriminated against,” he said.

Titus said that people should not fear their fellow open-carrying citizens.

“I wear it and people don’t react negatively to it,” Titus said. “I don’t think unless you’re antagonizing someone, and trying to point out that you have a firearm, that people are upset by it.”

Washington is in the majority of states in allowing the open carrying of guns. Every state except Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, New York, Florida, South Carolina and the District of Columbia allow some form of open carry.

Church said that he recognizes the strength of gun rights advocates, and that a number of local and national organizations watch out for Second Amendment matters. He said the department should focus on responding to emergencies, not guns.

“I’d rather be running a fire department and not dealing with firearms issues,” Church said.

After the meeting, Titus, Beal and Smith posed for a picture in front a sign at the entrance to fire Station 68 (where commissioner meetings are held) that read “no firearms,” with a picture of a six-shooter with a red line through it. They pondered how quickly the sign would be removed.

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