Recent high-profile mass shootings have ignited a national debate about gun control and the limits of an individual’s right to possess firearms. While much of the debate centers on appropriate rules and restrictions for schools and other publicly owned property, the issues are no less relevant when considering firearm possession on private property. To be sure, in the 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona involving Congresswoman Giffords and the 2012 Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, both incidents occurred at privately-owned places of business. The following is a brief explanation of Washington law concerning firearm possession, and how these laws may relate to those condominium associations that may wish to consider limiting the right to such possession on association property.
Just as is with its Federal counterpart, the Washington State Constitution ensures an individual’s right to bear arms. The state Supreme Court has repeatedly found, however, that the right is not absolute and is subject to reasonable regulation by the state. These restrictions are generally stated in Washington’s Firearms and Dangerous Weapons statute, i and include restrictions on possession and carrying of concealed weapons (except for in a person’s place of residence or fixed place of business), as well as restrictions on firearm possession for most felons, the mentally ill, and anyone convicted of a domestic violence crime. Also, there are certain locations where it is illegal (with certain exceptions) to carry a weapon either openly or concealed, such as primary or secondary school grounds, court houses or other prohibited places such as places of business that serve alcohol and are restricted to those 21 years of age or older.ii Similarly, there are also many state and local restrictions and regulations about where and when firearms can be discharged.
But as is the case in any discussion of Constitutional rights, these principlesreally only apply to the limits on the power of the government to restrict the rights of the individual. More specifically- they deal with what the state and local governments can and cannot regulate generally regarding the possession of firearms and tell us relatively little about what private property owners may or may not do to restrict the possession of firearms on their property. Fortunately- or unfortunately, depending upon your perspective- the rules regarding private property rights and firearms are much more straight forward.
Generally speaking, and with very few exceptions,iii a property owner is allowed to control absolutely a third party’s right to enter his or her property. An owner’s consent is considered a legal license to enter and remain on the property, and the license may be conditioned, restricted or revoked by the owner for any reason and at any time. Consequently, any private property owner is well within her rights to prohibit possession of firearms on her property and a third party’s failure to abide by that wish after reasonable notice would result in a criminal trespass by the offending party. An example of such a restriction might be a business or landlord that prohibits the possession of firearms on its premises for safety reasons, and it may post signs or other notices concerning this rule.
Similarly, a condominium association may also find itself in a position where it may become desirable to prohibit or restrict firearm possession on association property. The reasons could vary from simply the political/philosophical wishes of its membership, or it could be due to a pattern of past problems associated with firearm possession in common areas. While the reason isn’t typically important, it is important to remember is that the association’s power to restrict or condition firearm possession ends with association controlled property (common areas and limited common areas), and no matter how philosophically or politically desirable it may be for a particular community to wish to do so, an association would not have any legal basis to restrict firearm ownership in an individual’s condominium unit. Additionally, while it is likely not necessary for a Board to adopt firearm restrictions into its foundational documents, board members will certainly want to take care to properly adopt such restrictions into its formal rules and regulations and post notice of any such rules prominently among its membership and by signage. In short, constitutional issues notwithstanding, so long as an association has the political will among its membership to do so and takes reasonable care to properly adopt appropriate rules, condominium communities are well within their rights to ensure rules for firearm possession on common property meet the standards and goals of that particular community.
ii See RCW 9.41.300.
iii An example of one exception to this rule is the application of civil rights laws to private businesses and other places of “public accommodation.”