Gun-control opponents and supporters packed a hearing room on the Capitol campus in Olympia February 13 to testify about a bill requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.
State law currently requires background checks when buying a gun from a licensed firearms dealer, but not between private, unlicensed citizens. HB 1588 would require a background check for those sales as well. The bill, sponsored by Representative Jamie Pedersen (D-43rd District, Seattle), requires the seller to request a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check on the buyer from a licensed dealer or local law enforcement, either of which may charge up to $20 for the service. Under the bill, the background check requirement would not apply to the sale of antique guns.
NICS checks are usually immediate, but if one is delayed for more than three days the transaction would be allowed to go through without it. The same rule currently applies to licensed gun dealers.
Pedersen explained that the bill is a common-sense approach to keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals and those who are dangerous or mentally ill.
“I believe we have broad agreement in our society that there are some classes of people who should not have guns,” he said, speaking to the House judiciary committee that conducted the hearing.
Pedersen maintained that background checks are an effective way to prevent criminals from obtaining guns and said extending the requirement to private transactions, which represent 40 percent of firearms sales in the state, would help further reduce gun violence.
Don Pierce of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs stated that members of his organization support the right of a citizen to own a gun, except for those not allowed to by law. “The only way that we can really know for sure that we’re limiting gun transactions to felons is to create a background check process,” said Pierce.
Opponents of the bill claimed it would only affect law-abiding citizens; criminals, they argued, don’t follow laws and would obtain guns illegally.
“Since it’s already illegal for a felon to purchase a handgun anywhere from anyone,” said Linda Wilson, “how is regulating the sale of guns by a law-abiding gun owner going to change any action by a criminal?”
Others raised concerns about the possibility of a gun owner database being created from the background checks. The original version of the bill does not require government agencies to destroy the request after the background checks are completed.
“What this is really all about is not really regulating private transactions,” said Brian Judy of the National Rifle Association. “It’s about creating a registration database.” The bill would effectively create a registry for rifles and shotguns similar to federal handgun registration, claimed Alan Gottlieb of the Citizen’s Committee to Keep and Bear Arms.
A proposed change to the bill, which was not available until just before the hearing, would require agencies to destroy the forms used to request a background check and would not require a background check on buyers with state concealed pistol permits.
Licensed dealers may be the only way for a private seller to obtain a background check. According to some who addressed the committee, many police departments have policies against running background checks for private, non-licensed citizens.
Representative Mike Hope (R-44th District, Snohomish), a co-sponsor of the bill and a Seattle police officer, and Seattle police deputy chief of operations Nick Metz said it’s against their department’s policy to run background checks for private citizens. The bill doesn’t address those policies.
Randal Bragge, a resident of Belfair, said he called the Mason County Sheriff’s office and was told it would not perform a background check for an unlicensed gun seller.
Metz maintained that police aren’t opposed to responsible gun ownership, but if licensed gun shops are required to do a background check then unlicensed sellers should, too.
Judy noted that some private gun owners can and do voluntarily request a background check on prospective buyers through a licensed dealer, but for a higher fee than the proposed bill provides. “Dealers charge anywhere from $30 to $60; it’s very likely they won’t be able to do this for $20, and it could have the impact of shutting down private transactions,” he said.
Under terms of the bill, dealers would not be compelled to perform a background checks for private gun transactions.
Dinah Griffey, identifying herself as a domestic-violence survivor, believes regulations on buying guns hurts women by restricting their ability to defend themselves.“I told myself at that time that I will never, never allow myself to be a victim,” said Griffey.
“Every time you limit a woman’s right to defend herself you empower her attacker,” she said.
More people die from guns than car crashes in King County, according to Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for the Seattle Public Health Department.
“All these injuries and deaths are inherently preventable and therefore gun violence is a public health problem,” Fleming said.
Some solutions are controversial, noted Fleming, but background checks shouldn’t be. “If we as a society believe some people should not have guns then we must put a system in place that makes it as unlikely as possible that they’re able to buy them,” he said.
Kim Latterell, an evangelical pastor in Pierce County as well as a hunter and gun owner, supports gun rights, but believes that such rights come with conditions, including training, safe storage, licensing and regulation. HB 1588 is a first step in a long process of making communities safer, he offered.
“Government is a good gift of God and when government protects the most vulnerable among us, then they are a good government indeed,” he said.
The bill was scheduled for a committee vote February 19.