Ten days ago, this editorial page advised legislators to listen to constituents, not just to each other or to lobbyists, and authorize universal background checks on all gun sales, public and private. Multiple polls have shown popular support for this reasonable regulation, which would not prevent a single law-abiding citizen anywhere in the state from buying a gun. Such background checks already are required in gun sales by licensed dealers.We also acknowledged powerful political forces at work in the state House, where a background-checks bill was having trouble advancing to a vote, and we mentioned the Republican-controlled state Senate where even more opposition was poised to defy conventional wisdom expressed in the polls.
Our views were, sadly, prophetic. Despite weeks of impassioned wrangling on both sides of this issue, House Bill 1588 was not brought to a vote before last week’s deadlines. Supporters, realizing they simply didn’t have enough votes, allowed what crosscut.com writer Tom James called “an agonizing, drawn-out death at the hands of politics.”
None of this is surprising, politics being what it is. But disappointed Washingtonians have a couple of consolation facts to consider.
First, this year brought the greatest advance any universal-background-check bill has ever made in the Legislature. The House bill even had an outspoken Republican sponsor: Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, a Seattle police officer. (Hope has emerged as one of the genuine heroes in this drama. The Seattle Times reported in an editorial that Hope “was deluged with hate mail, orchestrated by the gun lobby. Gun-control advocates should remember his courage next election.)
Second, there was enough support this year among lawmakers and the people to take this cause off its death bed and put it on the injured list. One proposed amendment that made good sense would have essentially changed the bill into a referendum and put the measure before voters this November. Our admittedly unscientific supposition is that, in this particular state, such a referendum would pass.
Which brings this discussion to another strategy for reaching this goal via the electorate: Advance it as an initiative. Write the petition. Dispatch the signature gatherers, and let the people do what their elected officials have refused to do. That’s precisely what happened with a statewide ban on smoking indoors in public places, and the same activism could be unleashed to create universal background checks for gun sales.
Such reform, of course, will not cure the nationwide epidemic of gun violence. But making it more difficult for criminals and people with mental health problems to buy guns would be a proper step among myriad solutions. Gov. Jay Inslee said in a Wednesday interview that he continues “to believe this is an important thing for safety in our state.”
Again, this change would not keep anyone who is allowed by law to have a gun from buying one. Any gun buyer who passes a background check can make that transaction. This reality helps explain why the vast majority of National Rifle Association members who responded to a national online survey earlier this year supported universal background checks.
Christian Sinderman, a consultant who helped the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, told The Associated Press: “One thing is clear. We’re not going to give up the effort on this critical public safety issue.” Our state would benefit from Sinderman and others keeping this vision in sharp focus.