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Why Seattle Public Library Surrendered Its Gun Ban

Flickr Photo/Frank Fujimoto

When Seattle Public Library lifted its ban on guns in early November, officials there said they had done so because patrons had complained.  

Internal library emails reveal that there was just one patron complaint in several years – a man with a Yahoo email account who didn’t identify himself as either a patron or Seattle resident.

That man, Dave Bowman, lives in Seattle and has a library card (which he uses, he noted in an email to KUOW), and said that he demanded the policy change on behalf of all gun owners. He described himself as “neither a conservative, nor liberal, but a libertarian.” 

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "I knew this rule was in violation of state law (and common sense) and brought it to their attention.", "style": "inset"}]]“I noticed one day that the library’s rules stated that firearms were not allowed on library property except by law enforcement,” Bowman said by email to KUOW.

“I knew this rule was in violation of state law (and common sense) and brought it to their attention.”

The library emails, obtained by KUOW through a public records request, show the library dropped its gun ban without a fight. 

“They asked us to brief them on the law, ‘What is the likelihood that our ban will survive?’” City Attorney Pete Holmes said. “We had to tell them there was a significant risk.”

It was risky because the state Supreme Court had already agreed with Bowman’s argument, which he set forth in an Aug. 14 email to the library: In 2012, the state's high court refused to overturn two lower court rulings that said municipalities could not ban firearms “at city-owned park facilities open to the public.” Bowman interpreted that to include libraries.

“I hate it, I’m confident that no one in the library wanted to do it,” Holmes said. "This is, I think, an unnecessary invasion into municipal right of self-determination.”

The day after receiving Bowman's email, Marcellus Turner, the city librarian, wrote to coworkers: “Can you provide an answer for me to give to this patron to buy us some time while I figure out what gives on this?”

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "Knives remain banned. According to an internal library memo, \"There is no constitutional protection for the right to carry a knife or other dangerous weapons.\"", "style": "inset"}]]A week later, Joe Fithian, the head of security for the library, replied to Bowman: “Much the same as eating and sleeping or being intoxicated are not against the law, (guns) are against our rules of conduct.”

But Bowman refused to back down and within two months, the library announced to its staff that it would drop the gun ban. Staff members could ask questions, but administrators were firm: On Nov. 4, the library would allow guns. 

It wasn’t the first time gun advocates had pushed the library to allow guns. According to the library emails, legal action was threatened in 2007. The gun prohibition was revisited again in 2010 but the library stood firm. Open-carry organizations have threatened to take the library to court on the issue, but, according to the emails, “no action has materialized.” 

The new rule is specific:

"Patrons may not remove a firearm from its holster, rest their hand on the firearm, or in any other way intentionally draw attention to the firearm, such as opening the jacket to display it or constantly touching it."

Also, knives remain banned. According to an internal library memo, “There is no constitutional protection for the right to carry a knife or other dangerous weapons.” 

Librarians were livid. 

A children’s librarian wrote to library administrators: “ARE YOU KIDDING?!”

“We MUST strive to keep guns out of our very trusted, and very public space,” she wrote. “Because of our public nature, we are prime targets for random violence. No amount of ‘training’ will be able to keep staff and patrons safe, if anyone can come in with a hidden gun.” 

Administrators told librarians that patrons who complain about gun-holders be quietly moved to another part of the library. Another children’s librarian questioned that recommendation.    

“We can’t in good faith tell a concerned patron who reports this to us that it is within the other patron’s right to carry a firearm (like we can tell them that it is another patron’s right to view pornography, for example), when in fact there is a chance that he/she is carrying the firearm illegally.”

The librarian went on to say she was most worried the policy would result in gun-carrying patrons “feeling a need to step in during our more heightened patron conflicts, potentially escalating already violent situations dramatically and tragically.” 

Other questions arose. Could the librarians also carry weapons? (No, they could not.) Could a patron bring a gun to the reference desk to ask about its value? (Also, no.)

Anne Cisney, the head of the librarians union, said the union didn’t have much of a debate about lifting the ban “because the issue is so clear legally.”

“Librarians were initially worried for their own safety and for that of the public,” Cisney said. “It’s not so much even that people felt that a gun owner coming into the library would cause a problem, because the vast majority of gun owners are calm, law abiding people. But the presence of a gun could change the dynamic in any conflict.”

That’s why managers and security officers have addressed safety with staff. 

Marilynne Gardner, the chief financial officer, wrote to Fithian, the head of security: “Are you drafting an active shooter response plan?”

Another email sent to librarians: “When in doubt, if your personal radar tells you to be cautious, if the hair on your neck twitches … TRUST IT. I will never second guess you if you feel uneasy approaching a patron for sleeping, eating, etc.”

And another email promised librarians that the city attorney would defend them should they be accused of violating a patron’s rights.

Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire, said he's dismayed, not by the library's response, but because the library could not have fought back.

"Can I fault the library for not fighting back? Absolutely not,” Fascitelli said. "It’s black and white. We would have been all over that if there had been wiggle room, but they have no choice. Why fight a battle you know you’re going to lose? The bigger issue is why does Seattle -- Washington -- have such weak gun legislation?"

As for Dave Bowman, the patron who complained, well, he’s still not satisfied. 

In an Oct. 29 email to library administrators, he wrote: “The new language is barely more compliant with state law than the original rule and will be not tolerated by the gun rights community. On behalf of all legal gun owners I demand that the rule be either stricken or revised to be in compliance with state law.”

And he disagreed with the knife ban. “I also demand that the term ‘dangerous weapon’ be changed to ‘illegal weapon,’” he wrote. “The library has no right whatsoever to prohibit anyone from legally carrying a knife.”