Politics & Government

Gun show sales appear to rise after passage of I-594’s universal background checks

Voter approval of universal background checks for gun transfers on Nov. 4 appeared to spur a bit more buying of firearms at gun shows over the weekend, according to gun show operators opposed to Initiative 594’s provisions.

The evidence is anecdotal, but Phil Shave, executive director of Washington Arms Collectors, said he thinks any increase in buying was spurred by an avoidance of background check fees. That is what he heard from members at a show the group sponsored at Monroe last weekend, which drew an estimated 2,000 people.

“A lot of members had firearms to sell. I think it is fair to say that changes in the law create a little apprehension,” Shave explained. “So some people go, ‘It’ll be easier to make a sale this weekend than next month.’ We did see some of that.”

Shave said the background-check fees average $40.

Passage of I-594 was decisive, with a little less than 60 percent of voters supporting it. The initiative’s background checks requirements take effect Dec. 4, according to its sponsors, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which spent more than $10 million to close what it called “the gun show loophole.”

I-594 extends background checks currently carried out on purchases from licensed dealers to private sales between individuals — whether at a gun show or online. The background checks need to be carried out by a federally licensed firearms dealer, who can make the required contacts with the FBI’s national background check database or, in the case of handgun sales, contact the local police department or sheriff’s office.

Rival Initiative 591 was backed by gun groups including the Second Amendment Foundation and Washington Arms Collectors who saw it as a strategy for blocking broader requirements for background checks. But I-591 drew much less financial support and went down in defeat by a larger margin than expected.

On election night, there were rumbling from I-594 opponents about making legal challenges, but Alan Gottlieb of the I-591 campaign indicated in an email that it is too early to talk about grounds for any challenge. He said his group doesn’t want to telegraph its plans. Shave said it also is too early to say for the arms collectors group.

Absent court action, I-594 backers expect to see public protections begin next month with few problems. Geoff Potter, spokesman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said Washington gun owners and buyers will be using the very same background check system in effect today for purchases made through licensed dealers.

“I think what we will see after Dec. 4 is Washingtonians will adapt. Fewer guns will make their way into the hands of criminals. And people will enjoy their Second Amendment rights just as before,” Potter said.

Wes Knodel, a gun show sponsor who operates in Oregon and Washington, ran a show at the Tacoma Dome last weekend that required background checks — a condition the city of Tacoma required for the city-owned venue. To make it easy, Knodel paid a federally licensed dealer to do the checks for private sellers and buyers at the show.

Knodel said he’d heard of higher attendance at other shows not requiring the checks, and he blamed the requirement on lower attendance at his.

“We had a roughly 30 percent drop in attendance. This is the harm the mayor did to me,” he said. “It was well publicized they are requiring a background check at my shows.”

That said, Knodel said the private background checks he paid for went very smoothly on 55 buyers. That is because the federally licensed dealer he hired received approval from the FBI and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to streamline the process. The result was that the checks they carried out on private-party sales were done quickly, averaging “less than 15 minutes” to complete.

Other federal firearm licensees who attended and sold guns did a few hundred other checks on their buyers, Knodel said.

Potter said Knodel’s comments are telling — that the background checks were done without much problem.

“The experience in Tacoma underlines what we have been saying all along. This is something that is simple and effective,’’ Potter said. “At the end of the day, not much is going to change for folks — whether they buy a gun now or whether they buy a gun after Dec. 4.”

Potter said thousands of background checks have been done in Colorado in the year since that state adopted universal checks and “the vast, vast, vast majority of those have gone through without problem. Some 200 prohibited purchasers were blocked.”

But Knodel and Shave predicted problems with the initiative, contending it is confusing to understand what constitutes a transfer requiring a background check. “There’s going to be mass confusion. There’s going to be hundreds of thousands of people breaking the law and not even knowing it,” Knodel said.

Shave predicted many gun owners may ignore the provisions on transfers.

Knodel prefers Oregon’s approach. He said an Oregon state agency does the background checks rather than licensed dealers, and it charges a $10 fee. But Knodel contends Oregon’s law didn’t change the state’s crime rate — just as he doesn’t expect Washington’s to change its.