Initiatives 594 and 591 on the November ballot ask a simple question: Do you like background checks for firearms sales?
If you do, vote for I-594 and against I-591. That’s what we recommend. We can’t think of one good reason not to screen gun-seekers for criminal records and severe mental illnesses.
Background checks are not a novelty; they’ve been done for many years in this state without creating a gun-confiscating tyranny or denying firearms to responsible, law-abiding citizens. Federal law has long required licensed gun dealers to run sales through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System. I-594 does nothing more than extend the checks beyond licensed dealers to private sellers now operating outside the system.
Person-to-person sales now bypass the NICS. Many of these transactions are between strangers who find each other on websites. A scrupulous private seller might require the buyer to show a driver’s license and a concealed weapons permit, which itself requires a background check. But nothing stops the seller from delivering a deadly weapon to a shady customer in a parking lot, no questions asked.
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Under I-594, sellers and buyers would have to run the transfer through a licensed dealer who would handle the NICS screening. Licensed dealers are abundant in Washington. Some operate gun shops; many operate out of their homes. The requirement wouldn’t make it impossible for bad guys to get guns, but it would put an extra impediment in front of them.
A passionate minority of gun owners fears these checks. They aren’t out to abet criminals; they tend to see any kind of regulation of firearms sales as an infringement of Second Amendment rights or a precursor of oppressive government.
They’ve adopted two lines of attack on I-594. One of them is I-591, an ambiguous measure designed to confuse the issue. It contains a weird prohibition on checks “unless a national uniform standard is required.”
Why on earth must Washington’s system be in absolute lockstep with the federal Brady Act? States have improved on the Brady system; some, for example, do more rigorous searches in their own databases for people with mental disturbances. I-591 could easily hamstring state efforts to keep guns away from some genuinely dangerous people.
The other line of attack is to create confusion and controversy over the language of I-594. The chief target has been the initiative’s use of the term “transfer” for transactions subject to NICS checks. This is supposedly so broad that it will empower police to bust people for innocent swapping of guns while plinking, say, or loaning guns to friends on hunting trips.
Pro-594 people, including attorneys, scoff at this claim. Anti-594 people have produced some attorneys of their own who back their reading of “transfer.”
The issue, in our view, is what the provision would do in the real world. We can’t conceive of a police agency or prosecutor’s office that would waste a dime pressing charges against a law-abiding citizen for switching guns with a shooting buddy in the woods or doing something equally innocent. A Seattle Times investigation couldn’t find a single case of such folly anywhere in the country; groups that oppose background checks couldn’t come up with an example themselves.
Sweep all the chaff aside; this comes down to whether people seeking firearms should be screened for felonies, domestic violence and severe mental imbalances. If that’s unconstitutional or whatever, why don’t opponents demand that checks not be done in gun stores, either? The inconsistency reveals how flimsy the anti-screening argument really is.
Again, vote for I-594 — and against I-591 — if you believe certifiably dangerous people shouldn’t buy guns.
Read more endorsement editorials at www.thenewstribune.com/endorsements.