Gun show at Tacoma Dome has some city officials feeling uneasy

Council members worried about whether background checks are sufficient

Staff writerApril 24, 2014 

Thousands of people are expected to peruse hundreds of tables of guns, ammunition, cartridges, magazines and knives at two gun shows in Pierce County this weekend.

Many people will buy from firearms dealers, who have booked most of the shows’ booths. Such sellers are required by federal law to conduct background checks that delve into a potential buyer’s history of mental illness, drug use and criminal convictions, among other aspects.

But some purchases will be made from another kind of seller: private individuals selling guns from their personal collections.

Both shows operate under the so-called gun show loophole, which excuses private sellers at such events from having to research the backgrounds of their buyers.

The one at the Washington State Fairgrounds in Puyallup still requires a background check in those cases, although it is a more rudimentary review than dealers conduct. The other show, 9 miles away at the Tacoma Dome, does not require any check.

That worries some city of Tacoma elected officials who favor universal background checks as a way to lower crime rates and keep guns out of the hands of those who should not possess them.

Wes Knodel signed a contract last year for weekend’s show, the Dome’s first in 23 years. He said he was ready to schedule another gun show there in November and four more shows next year until Dome officials told him that he would have to wait until after this show to review how it went.

They also indicated that he might not be able to host another gun show at a city-owned facility without background checks in place, he said.

“They told me right away there was a couple of members of the City Council who wanted to re-address even having gun shows in Tacoma, or address any changes that we might have to make,” he said.

Mayor Marilyn Strickland, a member of the national group Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is one of those council members.

“Ideally we would require universal background checks, but the contract (with Knodel) had been signed. In the future we would probably take that into account,” she said this week.

The council has not had a public discussion about preventing gun shows at the Dome or adding requirements beyond those in state law, which doesn’t require background checks if someone buys from a private seller at a gun show.

“Right now, it’s cash goes one way, the firearm goes the other way and there’s a handshake in between,” said Knodel, who has organized gun shows in Washington and Oregon since 2000. He runs a smaller gun show in Centralia about once a month.

Knodel requires all sellers, private or not, to verify that buyers are from Washington state and of legal age to buy a gun. Sellers also must record the gun’s serial number and the amount paid, and provide the receipt to the buyer, who signs a statement that says he or she is legally allowed to buy a gun.

Strickland said Knodel is being “conscientious” in his attempt to ensure no gun is sold to someone who shouldn’t have one, but she still thinks more diligence is required.

“From a polling standpoint, people do support background checks, including people who own guns,” Strickland added.

At least three other council members — Ryan Mello, Robert Thoms and Lauren Walker — said they agree with Strickland. But the council is divided on the issue.

Councilman David Boe said the council should not be trying to manage the Dome or any other city-owned venue.

“At what point do we need to set policies for any show at the Tacoma Dome?” Boe said. “Not to make light of it at all, but no one called me to see if it’s OK for Justin Bieber to come to the Tacoma Dome.”

Councilman Joe Lonergan said he has no qualms about having the gun show at the Dome, and by delaying Knodel’s contract, the city could be missing an opportunity to generate revenue for the city-owned Tacoma Dome. He said there has been no public discussion about the topic.

To have “substantial decisions being done in one office doesn’t seem like the best idea to me. We could have a study session and give direction,” he said.

City officials might not have to act. This fall, state voters will decide two gun-related ballot measures. Initiative 594 would require background checks for all private gun sales, while Initiative 591 would forbid background checks more stringent than federal law requires.

If I-594 passes, the organizers of both of this weekend’s guns shows would have to change how they operate.

The Washington Arms Collectors gun show at the Puyallup fairgrounds requires a club membership to make any gun purchases, whether from a dealer or a private seller. To get a membership, buyers must submit to a Washington State Patrol search of their state criminal histories or show a valid concealed pistol licence which requires a more stringent background check.

Phil Shave, executive director of Washington Arms Collectors, said club members feel more comfortable selling guns to each other knowing that they’ve all had at least basic background checks. But the club, which has given $250,000 to the I-591 campaign, doesn’t want the state to require checks.

“The Washington Arms Collectors does have a position that we believe that private transactions between good citizens are something the government does not need to be involved in,” Shave said.

The club, which has organized gun shows since 1951, has operated a show at the fairgrounds several times a year since the 1980s.

Karen LaFlamme, spokeswoman for the Puyallup fairgrounds, said the fair’s board occasionally asks questions about the gun show but is currently satisfied.

“They (Washington Arms Collectors) have very high standards of what they will allow with their rules here,” she said.

The last time the Tacoma Dome hosted a gun show was in 1991, the same year the rock band Guns N’ Roses played there. Other gun shows have been held in city-owned facilities since then, but none allowed private sales of firearms, said Kim Bedier, director of public assembly facilities for the city.

Knodel said he decided to book the Dome because his Centralia events have been full for the past three or four years, with 300 or 400 tables worth of vendors on a wait list for a recent show.

“That told me there was a market for a bigger show in the area,” Knodel said. “When someone told me the Tacoma Dome was available I stuck my neck out and rented it.”

But council members’ opposition could throw a wrench in his plans, he said earlier this week.

“I really hope that the city does not want to go beyond the limits of the law, because it creates a firestorm of politics,” Knodel said. “... We have four really good dates set up for 2015, and that’s all on hold now.”

Mello said he did not tell the Dome to hold off on issuing contracts for future gun shows. But he said it is legal for the city to restrict which functions to allow at its facilities — and that would include requiring background checks for all gun sales or forbidding gun shows altogether.

“(Guns) have the potential to kill and seriously injure people. I do not see the harm in making sure that criminals and others who should not have the weapons don't have them,” Mello said. “This does not seem like a big burden for what the potential downside is.”

If the council continues on this path, Knodel said, “The (National Rifle Association) will certainly be contacted.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542

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