Here in Washington, as in much of the West, we love our guns. There is a strong appreciation for our pioneer history and the sense of self-reliance that flows from it. Bearing arms is a fundamental right embedded in the 2nd Amendment of the United States Constitution and well affirmed in Article I, Section 24 of the Washington State Constitution. However, that right is not unlimited.
How many of us, while in the course of target shooting or hunting, have leaned up against the side of a vehicle or taken a rest across the hood to steady our rifle or shotgun before the shot? In fact, I have heard of hunters shooting deer from a bench rest in the back of a pickup in Cascade Mountains. They used a .50 cal Barrett Model 95 rifle with high power scope to harvest game from mountain top to mountain top. In just about any circumstance all of that would be a crime.
The law covering this is found in RCW 77.15.460(3): “Unlawful possession of a loaded rifle or shotgun in a motor vehicle or upon an off-road vehicle, and unlawful use of a loaded firearm are misdemeanors.” “Motor Vehicle” is defined in RCW 46.04.320, as just about anything that “is self-propelled” whether by fuel or electricity, except wheelchairs, personal mobility scooters and golf carts. No loaded rifles or shotguns are permitted “in” those. That seems pretty straight forward.
However, the touchy part is the prohibition of a loaded rifle or shotgun “upon an off-road vehicle” and what that really means. The definition of “Off-road vehicle” is defined in RCW 46.04.365. That includes any “registered vehicle when used for recreational purposes” off a highway or on natural terrain. But, it also includes motorcycles and “four-wheel drive vehicles”. No loaded rifles or shotguns are permitted “upon” those. The dangerous ambiguity is what does “upon” mean?
The statutes don’t explicitly define the preposition “upon,” so we must look to the dictionary definition, according to Am. Legion Post No. 32 v. City of Walla Walla, 116 Wash.2d 1, 8 (1991). The definition found in The New Lexicon Webster’s Dictionary is “on”. The definition of “on” includes “supported or suspended by,” “occupying part of” and “located at.” When compliance with the law is involved, never do the minimum. The most safe way to approach compliance with this long-gun law is to make sure that there is no touching or other contact of a motor vehicle or off-road vehicle by a loaded rifle or shotgun, or the shooter, whatsoever, unless a valid disabled hunter permit is in possession and is being properly used. I have heard an Eastern Washington Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Officer say that he would charge anyone he sees leaning up against a vehicle with a loaded rifle or shotgun. Be even more cautious and don’t lean a loaded rifle or shotgun up against a vehicle or lay it on a prone tailgate.
Even though this statute is found in the Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Code, it is not limited to hunters. The Court of Appeals in State v. Olney, 117 Wash.App. 524, 529 (2003), held that this law is of general application and not limited to hunters, because it is related to public safety. The Court of Appeals in State v. Pinkham, ___ Wash.App. ___, 409 P.3d 1103, 1105 (2018), determined that with regard to compliance here, a person’s mental state is irrelevant. In other words, even if you didn’t know that a rifle or shotgun is loaded, if it is upon one of the prohibited vehicles, there is still an unacceptable risk that you may be found criminally liable. ‘Opps, didn’t know – my bad’ is not defense. A misdemeanor is no small penalty, under RCW 9A.21.020(3), it is punishable by imprisonment in jail for a maximum of up to 90 days, or by a fine of not more than $1,000.00, or both. This paper is not meant as legal advice, rather it should be taken as a general guide.
Finally, what level of cooperation the law requires a person to give, if contacted by a Wildlife Enforcement Officer, is a blog subject for another day. Happy hunting!