SEATTLE -- While the debate over guns -- who can buy them, who can carry them -- is playing out on a grand scale across the national stage, its most emotional skirmishes are often fought in smaller venues, those most people never hear about, in communities across the country.
Witness the town of Oak Harbor, Wash., where a city council member recently walked out of a council meeting when he learned a spectator -- a disabled veteran who served five years in Afghanistan -- was carrying a concealed weapon.
The video of the confrontation hit YouTube and has drawn reaction from around the country since the Jan. 15 meeting, said Mayor Scott Dudley, who apologized to the veteran after council member Rick Almberg, losing a motion to ban guns from the council chamber, picked up his files and left the room.
“The YouTube video has gone viral and we have been inundated by individuals across the country, in Canada and even the U.K., where it hit a chord and people felt compelled to reach out to us via the phone or email,” Dudley told the Los Angeles Times. “People felt sorry for this veteran, said he was a hero and he was doing nothing wrong.”
The backstory: The pro-gun-rights Second Amendment Foundation over the past few years has been targeting cities across Washington state, such as Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, that have laws making it illegal to have guns in public parks.
Washington state law makes it illegal for cities to adopt such ordinances; the state Supreme Court affirmed that in March when it refused to set aside an appeals court ruling that concluded that Seattle had no authority to pass a firearms ban in that city’s parks.
Oak Harbor responded to the Second Amendment Foundation’s demand by bringing up the issue of repealing its law for a vote in December. Instead, the council voted 5-1 to table the issue. Almberg argued there was no need to repeal an ordinance that wasn’t legally enforceable anyway.
“That set off some of the gun rights people, and they started showing up at meetings wearing concealed weapons,” Almberg said in an interview.
Alan Gottlieb of the Second Amendment Foundation said simply not enforcing the ordinance isn’t good enough.
“They’re dead wrong, and they don’t have a leg legally to stand on,” he said. “If you’re black and there’s a law saying you have to ride in the back of the bus, you’d be happy with somebody saying they’re not going to enforce it? It doesn’t pass the smell test,” he told The Times.
The Jan. 15 discussion started when Lucas Yonkman stood up in front of the council and said he wanted to comment on the issue of guns in public parks.
“I’m a professional with a weapon. I carry a weapon every day, for the purpose of protecting people,” he said. “The American people should be very careful about messing with the Second Amendment, and changing it.… It’s there not just for protection, but for protection of the American people in all purposes.”
At that point, Almberg wanted to know if Yonkman was armed, and he affirmed that he was.
“I have a concealed carry permit, and I am concealed carrying at this moment,” he said. “I would hope that people felt comfortable with that, due to the fact that I am a trained professional with a weapon, and I served my country for over five years in Afghanistan, sustained wounds in protection of those rights, and if there was an issue, I would protect any person, whether I knew them or not, with my own life.”
Almberg responded by moving to require members of the public to either check their weapons with the police chief, or leave. That motion failed. Almberg then left -- and the mayor apologized.
“He took the opportunity to grandstand and make a point politically, whatever that point was,” Dudley told The Times. “But there are some of us elected officials that haven’t forgotten why we’re there, who we work for, whose money we’re spending.… I’m disappointed that these elected officials seem to forget what their boundaries are, when it comes to their legislative authority.”
Almberg said he was within his rights.
“I made a statement that I would walk out of the meeting in protest of people that would show up armed in the council chambers. Though it’s their 2nd Amendment right under the law, I also have a 1st Amendment right to express my thoughts, both as a citizen and a council member,” he told The Times.
“I will never condone weapons in government office buildings where the government’s business is being conducted, or in parks where hunting is not permitted,” he said.
“State law allows you to display weapons, but it’s against the law to discharge them. Well, there’s just a millisecond between the points of compliance and disaster when a gun goes off, whether it goes off intentionally or accidentally. You can’t unshoot a gun, or take a bullet back.”
Gottlieb said his organization, which has filed lawsuits across the country to enforce gun owners’ rights, will continue to insist that Oak Harbor get rid of its parks gun ban.
“It is appalling that Oak Harbor elected officials are refusing to remove these illegal local codes and are thumbing their noses at the rule of law,” he said in a letter addressed to the mayor this week. “I can assure you we already have individual plaintiffs lined up and will sue.”
Dudley said the issue has been put on the council’s agenda once again for Feb. 5. He’s already looking for a bigger hearing room.