One dispute arising in the political fight over Initiative 594’s expansion of background checks is whether it creates a registry of Washington gun owners that could threaten gun rights.
The short answer is no. Washington does not have a gun registry, and I-594 does not create one.
But the state Department of Licensing does maintain a database that includes a permanent record of handgun sales. The state handgun data is kept for use by law enforcement when investigating gun crimes or doing background checks required before sales of new firearms by licensed dealers.
Because I-594 would require background checks for virtually all firearm sales and transfers, including online purchases and some gun show transactions that now avoid such checks, more data on handgun sales would be collected. This is prompting concerns among some gun rights advocates who say that one day their political opponents might seek to limit gun ownership or seize firearms with due process.
“Right now I don’t think there are votes to do it. But that doesn’t mean tomorrow there won’t be,” I-594 opponent Alan Gottlieb, who chairs the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said last month.“Our concern is we don’t want that database in the first place. This (594) expands that database.”
Spokesman Geoff Potter of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility pushing I-594 says talk of a gun registry is intended to create fear and confusion — much like the debate over whether I-594’s background-check requirement for “transfers” would make it illegal for a gun owner to hand a firearm to his friend to hold. (I-594 backers dispute the claim this would be a transfer.)
Potter said I-594 does nothing more than expand the number of sales that are included in the state’s existing database.
“594 simply applies the current system of background checks to all sales,” he said. “The current system includes a record of the sale, and these records are an important tool used by law enforcement to solve gun crimes.”
Potter’s group also said national data from the FBI show that background checks have halted more than 40,976 gun sales in Washington since the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, began in 1998. Those were potential sales to felons, domestic abusers and mentally ill people. Gottlieb did not dispute the data.
Arguments over I-594’s definitions and unintended consequences are likely to reverberate throughout the remaining month of the campaign leading up to the Nov. 4 election.
An early video ad for I-591 carried the message: “Stop gun confiscation without due process and protect background checks uniformity.” And the National Rifle Association, which formed the Washingtonians Opposed to I-594, launched a website that says I-594 “is in reality a universal handgun registration scheme.”
Gottlieb has said that were it not for the state keeping a permanent record of handgun transactions and owners, he might be more willing to expand the state’s requirement for background checks on firearm sales. He is leading Washington Citizens Against Regulatory Excess, a political committee campaigning against I-594, and Protect Our Gun Rights, a second committee advocating for Initiative 591 to bar any state background check laws more strict than the federal standard.
He acknowledged that he has no evidence the state data have ever been misused. DOL spokeswoman Christine Anthony said the agency has kept data on firearm transactions since the 1970s.
But in voter pamphlet statements, I-591 backers say guns were seized without due process in New Orleans after the Katrina Hurricane and in other places. In an era of “big data” tracking by government, they don’t like having more records being kept.
Under I-594, private sellers would need to pay a federally licensed firearm dealer to obtain a background check on prospective buyers.
Background checks on handgun sales are done by local police departments, which tap into NICS, state criminal databases and DOL records to ensure that buyers are not ineligible to purchase or own guns. But the police do not keep records of transactions; it is gun dealers who keep applications and share the information with either the FBI or DOL.
Background checks also are required today on sales of rifles and other long guns from licensed dealers, but those data are not collected by the state, and the FBI does not keep a permanent record of any sales handled by licensed dealers.
“There is no statewide registry of firearms,” said Dan Kimball, former Thurston County sheriff, who has begun advocating publicly for the background checks measure and who used information from the state database during gun-crime investigations when he was a detective. “When I think of a registry I think of a list of everybody’s firearm they own. Obviously we don’t have that now.”