In Our View: I-594 Locked and Loaded

Expansion of background checks won't be noticed by responsible gun owners

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Expanded background checks for gun sales become law today in Washington — and few people will notice a difference.

Initiative 594 was approved last month by 59 percent of voters statewide (in Clark County it received 58 percent of the vote), despite a strong fear-mongering campaign by opponents. Those opposed to the measure asserted that the law would turn law-abiding citizens into inadvertent criminals by placing undue restrictions on the transfer of guns. In truth, the law merely expands background checks — which already were required when purchasing a weapon from a licensed dealer — to gun shows, online sales, and private sales. The law also explicitly provides for exceptions such as gifts to family members; transfers to spouses; transfers at shooting ranges or competitions; and other innocuous situations.

Still, some fear remains that handing a gun to someone under what should be legal circumstances could result in criminal prosecution. The extent of that fear led state Rep. Liz Pike, R-Camas, to address the issue in a recent newsletter to supporters. “I do believe there are troubling provisions within it that need to be addressed, while upholding the intent of the law, which is to prevent firearms from getting into the wrong hands,” wrote Pike, who opposed the initiative and said that several constituents have contacted her with concerns about the new law. “During this legislative session, I plan to meet with interested parties to see how we can work to improve this new law, while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Therein lies the gist of I-594. The goal is to protect law-abiding citizens while making it more difficult for convicted felons to obtain guns. If law-enforcement officials suddenly are locking up gun owners simply for handing a gun to somebody at, say, a gun-safety class, we would expect the Legislature to step in and would expect the state attorney general to issue a clarification about what the law actually says. “Responsible gun owners aren’t going to see a difference,” King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told the Associated Press. “What it might do is raise the risk for people who are willing to sell guns, no questions asked.”

That not only is the intent of the law, it is the language of the law.

All of which makes the fear-mongering and sky-is-falling proclamations seem unnecessary. A rally is scheduled at the Capitol on Dec. 13 in which protesters plan to openly exchange guns, and the National Rifle Association has expressed an interest in seeking “legislative remedies to the most onerous provisions” of the initiative. Such protests and legislative remedies are time-honored American traditions. But so are overreactions, and I-594 does little to warrant concerns that individual rights are being trampled.

“If somebody committed a crime with a firearm, and if the source was tracked back to someone who didn’t do a background check of the person who they transferred the gun to, that to me would seem to be the most likely scenario where a law-enforcement official would take action,” said Mitch Barker, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. Under the new law, a person who knowingly commits a violation could be charged with a gross misdemeanor; two or more knowing violations could result in Class C felony.

Those are reasonable penalties for people with a penchant for selling guns to felons or to those who are mentally ill. For the rest of the gun owners out there, the vast majority of whom are responsible, they won’t even notice a difference.