Washington voters are nearing a decision Nov. 4 whether to require criminal background checks for virtually all gun sales, including private sales arranged online and at gun shows.
Such checks are already mandatory under federal law for gun purchases made from federally licensed dealers, but the proposal to extend the check requirements to more sales has provoked a huge, multimillion-dollar fight.
Initiative 594 would put Washington in the company of six states and the District of Columbia requiring universal checks on virtually all private gun transfers.
Local billionaires such as Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer have given heavily to the I-594 side, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s handgun-control organization Everytown for Gun Safety is also contributing more than $2 million in support.
The National Rifle Association is rallying its members against it. Local gun-rights advocates with the Second Amendment Foundation and Washington Arms Collectors are fighting a two-front battle: one against I-594 and one in favor of Initiative 591, a response to I-594 that proposes to bar any state background check law that is more stringent than federal law. They say I-594 is a potential infringement on gun owners’ rights to keep and bear arms and won’t ensure that felons don’t get firearms.
But for Jocelyn Wood, an Olympia resident who has been volunteering for pro-594 phone banks, the election is about safety and the kind of world her young children will inherit.
“I would not call myself an activist in any real movement,” said Wood, who works in public health. “But I’m a mom with two young boys and I want to raise them in the safest environment I can. I had been following gun violence for quite a while; I had just graduated from high school when Columbine happened. … When Sandy Hook happened, I just had a gut reaction — I had to get involved.”
Cheryl Stumbo, one of six women shot during a shooter’s rampage at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle offices in 2006, is the sponsor of I-594. She now works for Everytown for Gun Safety, which is allied with another Bloomberg-backed group, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, that is helping I-594.
Stumbo’s assailant killed one woman and injured five others in a spree that put a bullet in Stumbo’s abdomen at close range. The man, who was upset by actions by Israel, had passed a state background check. He had been previously committed to a mental hospital for 10 days but never to the 14-day court-mandated stay that would have disqualified him from buying a firearm.
Severely injured, Stumbo underwent 20 surgeries and treatment for traumatic stress disorder.
“Expanding background checks to more people in our state would save more people from going through what I went through,’’ Stumbo said.
CHECKS KEEP GUNS AWAY FROM FELONS, MENTALLY ILL
Stumbo says there is a correlation between fewer police killed by firearms and fewer women shot and killed by domestic partners in states that have more background checks. She cites the case of Missouri, which saw an increase in firearm-related homicides after its 2007 repeal of a background checks law, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of Urban Health that is often cited by Everytown for Gun Safety.
And I-594 backers point to FBI data showing that background checks under federal and state law have kept guns out of the hands of about 41,000 people ineligible to have them since 1998. This includes mostly felons but also offenders with domestic violence records and some people with serious mental illnesses.
The idea background checks lower violent crime is disputed by I-594 critics, who point out that U.S. violent crime rates have been falling for two decades. The NRA website notes murder rates nationally are near historic lows while gun ownership is at all-time highs.
The Washington Council of Police & Sheriffs and the Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association have taken positions against I-594, contending it won’t improve public safety or keep firearms out of felons’ hands. Twenty-six of the state’s 39 county sheriffs including Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza also oppose I-594, according to the NRA’s latest tally last week.
Bird hunters such as Jay Ernest of Tenino, who stopped by the Evergreen Sportsmen’s Club south of Tumwater early this month for some practice shooting at skeet, also question what difference I-594 will make.
“The criminal element is going to get the guns anyway,” he said, echoing a common refrain from gun owners during the campaign. “So what good is 594 going to do? Is it going to prevent criminals from killing people? No.”
But former Thurston County Sheriff Dan Kimball, who is speaking out in favor of I-594, says he’s certain that fewer guns will get in the wrong hands if more background checks are carried out.
“I think we’re going to save some lives,” Kimball said, adding that he supports the Second Amendment right to bear arms, grew up around firearms and carried a gun to work for 26 years. “I wouldn’t support this legislation if I thought it was done just to make people feel good. That would be a waste of everybody’s time. I think it can make a difference.’’
Jonathan Griffin, who has tracked firearm legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said there is a lack of independent research showing clear relationships between gun violence and gun laws.
“There hasn’t been a lot of research done — independent research. Beyond that it’s pretty hard to make a causal comparison,” Griffin said. “There are so many things that go into reduction of violence.’’
However, a March 2013 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found a correlation between gun laws and fewer firearm fatalities.
“A higher number of firearm laws in a state are associated with a lower rate of firearm fatalities in the state, overall and for suicides and homicides individually,” said the report by Dr. Eric W. Fleegler and four others.
At the same time, the JAMA report said the study “could not determine cause-and-effect relationships,” suggesting further studies were needed to explain the effect.
CONCERNS ABOUT UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES
Both sides talk about unintended consequences.
Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the national Second Amendment group based in Bellevue, is the author of I-591 and is leading the anti-594 committee. He points out scads of problems he thinks it will create for law-abiding gun owners who want to loan guns to friends.
“This is a hostile initiative. It is intended to damage and cost money (for) to anybody who owns a firearm,” added Phil Shave, executive director of the Renton-based Washington Arms Collectors, a private group that sponsors gun shows that sell only to members who must undergo a one-time background check to be members.
The plain language of I-594 requires background checks for firearm transfers. It says, “ ‘Transfer’ means the intended delivery of a firearm to another person without consideration of payment or promise of payment including, but not limited to, gifts and loans.” And it says transfers between private parties must be assisted by licensed firearm dealers that can order up a background check on the buyer, ensuring he or she is not a felon or someone who has a record of serious mental health problems.
Some gun owners worry they wouldn’t be able to lend a gun to a friend without going to a gun store to get a background check for the “transfer.” The initiative does not have a clear exemption or allowance for loans to friends — which in Colorado’s 2013 law is three days and in California’s statute is 30 days.
“People who own firearms are going to be breaking this law left and right without even realizing it,” contends William Burris, a retired Pierce County sheriff’s detective who is spokesman for the McKenna-based Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association. Some gun instructors say gun safety classes could be put in peril or students might have to buy their own guns, and not use loaners in classrooms.
I-594 does provide a series of background-check exemptions for gifts of guns to family members, allowing temporary loans or transfers to others while hunting or at gun ranges and loans to spouses and domestic partners. It does not require background checks for inherited guns, although it does require heirs to notify the Department of Licensing within 60 days if firearms are to be kept or a background check would be required for a buyer to whom it is transferred.
But I-594 spokesman Geoff Potter said the background check would apply where the firearm is taken away by a borrower even for short periods, say to hunt for a couple of days. Backers also say any glitches in the law can be worked out by the Legislature later.
“If there is something that needs to be tweaked later, like they did in the marijuana law — they can do that later,’’ Kimball said. “It’s pretty clear what the intent is here. This whole concept — that I can’t even hand my gun to a neighbor so he can look at it — is not the intent of it. It’s nonsense. No prosecutor, no sheriff, no chief of police is going to be enforcing that.’’
Meanwhile, I-591 opponents say they have their own concerns about what happens if it passes. They say the measure would actually roll back actions the state now takes on background checks for handgun purchases, leaving only the federal check in place.
Stumbo said the state background checks for handgun purchases require “a more careful check of law enforcement records and mental health … That would be rolled back. So there wouldn’t be that check by local law enforcement,’’ she said.
The I-591 campaign is insisting it does not roll back existing law for state background checks. And the Attorney General’s Office analysis of I-591 said it assumes current state law requiring the more stringent background check would remain in effect.
What happens if both measures pass is unclear. Shave and Burris of the Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association told The Olympian’s editorial board that the real goal of I-591 is to stop I-594. Their hope is that if I-594 passes, I-591 passes alongside it so the Legislature has to work out a compromise.
The state Attorney General’s Office said no established rule of law exists to govern the resolution of two conflicting initiatives. But the first step would be “to analyze whether they can somehow be reconciled,” Alison Dempsey-Hall, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bob Ferguson, said in an email.
AT GUN SHOWS, WORRIES ABOUT UNCLE SAM
At a recent gun show at the Southwest Washington Fairgrounds near Chehalis, dozens of tables were set up with an array of rifles, handguns and other weapons. Some sellers were licensed firearms dealers, others just private sellers who don’t require background checks. Event sponsor Wes Knodel estimates the mix was half and half for a two-day event that drew an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 attendees.
Knodel said he opposes I-594 but is prepared to adjust his operations if voters approve it. He also has agreed to do background checks at his next Tacoma Dome gun and knife show, because the Tacoma City Council voted to require checks on all gun sales at city-owned properties.
But his Centralia operation let people operate freely.
At one table near the back, gun builder John Hansen was hunched over as he installed a laser sight on a .22 caliber pistol for local rancher Allen Morin.
Morin, who raises organic beef cattle as well as show poultry and Andalusian horses, said he wanted the gun “for varmint that bother the critters.” He said a gun show offered better selection than a shop and he found more expertise from sellers. He also liked the privacy of shopping without a background check.
“The other part of it is Uncle Sam knows about the guns I have, but not about all of them … I don’t think he needs to know everything I’m doing,’’ Morin said, sounding a common theme among gun owners.
Gun owners have sounded alarms over whether I-594 creates a registry of Washington gun owners that could threaten gun rights. Under state law, the Department of Licensing keeps a database of all handgun sales that are transferred through licensed gun dealers, which totaled about 800 in Washington in 2013, and that database includes owner name, gun type, and serial number. It is kept for use by law enforcement when investigating gun crimes or doing background checks required before sales of new firearms by licensed dealers.
DOL also has data and fingerprints on those who apply for concealed pistol licenses, but no data is kept on long-gun sales, which require a different kind of background check by dealers who deal directly with the federal government.
Opponents of I-594 have conceded they know of no examples of Washington’s database being used improperly or to confiscate guns.
Hansen said that he has his own method of deciding who to do business with — including looking a buyer in the eye and asking a few questions.
“I’m a very good judge of character,’’ Hansen said. “There’s some people you could do 20 background checks and you couldn’t safely sell them a gun.”
BIG MONEY, DEEP POCKETS
An Elway Poll released this month showed I-594 had 60 percent support on the eve of ballots going out to voters. Stuart Elway said he queried 500 voters and found 39 percent supported I-591, which had enjoyed majority support in his April poll. The polling done Oct. 6-9 had a margin of error of 4.5 percent.
Money is pouring into the background-checks campaign.
As of Oct. 22, Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility collected nearly $9.8 million and spent $7.3 million. Bloomberg’s Everytown group contributed more than $2.3 million in cash alone and has a separate PAC that also raised $866,226, making that New York-based group the single largest donor.
Other major donors were from the Seattle-area’s wealthy class — including $1.49 million from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and his wife Lenore, $1.08 million from Steve and Connie Ballmer, $1.05 million from Bill and Melinda Gates.
Sandy Brown, a former United Methodist minister in Seattle who is campaigning for I-594, said the number of donors on the side of background checks is larger. Data on file at the state Public Disclosure Commission shows I-594 has collected about 9,000 separate contributions, many of them small but multiple donations from individuals.
Opponents on the other side were gathering far less money from fewer sources.
Protect Our Gun Rights raised $1.25 million with about 1,250 separate contributions supporting I-591. More than $500,000 cash came from the Washington Arms Collectors group and almost as much cash and in-kind help came from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms..
Washington Citizens Against Regulatory Excess raised $112,934 in opposition to I-594.
The NRA has also given $486,631 to its in-state PAC opposing I-594, but it is not giving in the other campaign. “We’re neutral on 591,” said NRA spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen from Fairfax, Virginia, explaining the group wants to keep its effort focused on one issue.
Mortensen said the PAC against I-594 is using social media and recruiting volunteers to staff phone banks and knock on doors closer to Election Day.
The reason it is high on NRA’s radar, she said, is that Bloomberg has been a big influence nationally and it may spark more efforts in other states.
“If he is successful in this ballot initiative in Washington, we are very concerned that he will replicated this across the country and we will have ballot initiative like this one across the country,” Mortensen said. “That is why we are so concerned.”