Washougal gun shop draws criticism for response to Black Lives Matter march

Citizen tells city council armed gunmen standing on top of Limitless America posed 'true public threat' to nearby protesters

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A motorist drives past Limitless America, a gun store in Washougal on June 11. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian)

A Washougal gun shop received scathing online criticism and negative reviews after several people were spotted wielding guns and donning protective gear in front and on top of the Limitless America store on Sunday, June 6, while a Black Lives Matter protest calling out systemic racism and police brutality against people of color marched nearby.

“I was shocked to see a photograph of the activities at the Limitless America gun shop during yesterday’s peaceful march of Washougal citizens supporting racial justice,” Washougal resident Jim Cooper said during a city council meeting on Monday, June 8. “The march consisted of a cross-section of the Washougal community, and included mostly children and young families. I’m really struggling to understand how and why our Washougal Police Department allowed this gun shop to establish a rooftop snipers’ nest along a public parade route.”

“There’s no doubt that the mere presence of an armed rooftop sniper –wearing ear and eye protection, clad in all black and brandishing an assault-style weapon toward the peaceful marchers –constituted a true public threat,” Cooper said. “Allowing or condoning such behavior serves against the interest of public safety by creating a circumstance that could easily escalate a very peaceful situation into a total tragedy. I encourage the council and the police department to develop policies and procedures that will ensure that such a potential tragedy could never happen in Washougal.”

A post on Limitless America’s Facebook page, dated Monday, June 7, states that the people at the shop were “peacefully protecting our community.”

“No one made any offensive comments … (but) we got attacked for being racist,” the post states. “For the community’s knowledge, we do not support racism. We will protect our community from riots and looting. Our small business is (owned by a) blended American Vietnamese family. Our team of employees all have different backgrounds. To have false attacks against us claiming we are ‘racist’ because we guarded our store and community is offensive.”

In a statement, Washougal Police Chief Wendi Steinbronn indicated the armed people at the gun shop didn’t break any laws.

“We support lawful First Amendment assemblies,” she wrote. “I heard from some who were concerned about the open carry of firearms by some in the community. Open carry is legal in the state of Washington, assuming the person is otherwise legally able to carry a firearm.”

Washington law RCW 9.4.270¬†states that it is unlawful for any person to “carry, exhibit, display or draw any firearm … or any other weapon apparently capable of producing bodily harm, in a manner, under circumstances, and at a time and place that either manifests an intent to intimidate another or that warrants alarm for the safety of other persons.”

“The key word in RCW 9.4.270¬†is ‘intent,'” Steinbronn said. “Intent has a very high burden of proof, and should. Standing at a store front or even on top of the roof with a rifle slung and muzzle pointed down does not show any intent. Absent ‘something else’ that would tip the scales towards intent, like a verbal threat, pointing of the firearm and the like, it is not a violation of RCW 9.4.270 to merely open carry.”

“I do understand why people are alarmed and upset,” Steinbronn added. “I did talk with the store owner the next day. I also consulted our city attorney about the possibility of a time, place, manner ordinance that would allow us to restrict open carry during events such as marches, parades and other crowd gatherings.”

Steinbronn said the city’s attorney believed such an ordinance or code would not be legal based on the “state presumption” law, which states cities may only enact gun laws authorized by state law.

“Again, absent the ‘something else’ … there is no way to prove intent,” Steinbronn said. “The store owner told me … they were there in response to a general threat they perceived from ‘Antifa-type’ groups possibly infiltrating the peaceful march in order to engage in malicious mischief or looting.”

She added that Washougal police “did not have any information or intel that the march was going to be anything but a peaceful demonstration, but the store owner perceived it differently.”