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Feb. 6, 2023

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Rival gun measures on November ballot

Background check initiatives attract attention, money

The Columbian
Published:
2 Photos
Ralph Eaton of Tacoma holds an Olympic Arms semi-automatic rifle and a sign that reads "For-Sale Make Offer" as he attends a gun rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia.
Ralph Eaton of Tacoma holds an Olympic Arms semi-automatic rifle and a sign that reads "For-Sale Make Offer" as he attends a gun rights rally at the Capitol in Olympia. Photo Gallery

OLYMPIA — Two competing measures on the Washington state ballot this fall ask voters to take a stance on expanded background checks for gun sales. One is seeking universal checks for all sales and transfers, including private transactions. The other would prevent any such expansion.

Supporters of the initiative to expand background checks have received large donations from wealthy figures, including Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and have spent millions, far outpacing the anti-expansion effort.

What happens if both pass on Nov. 4 is anyone’s guess, though the secretary of state’s office has said that either the Legislature or the courts would have to sort it out.

“We’ve never passed rival measures dealing with the same subject,” said David Ammons, spokesman for Secretary of State Kim Wyman. Ammons noted that there is no state statute or rule on what to do in such a case. “Someone would most likely bring a court challenge.”

No other state has a gun-related measure on its ballot this year, but some say proponents of universal background checks in other states could gain momentum if expansion wins in Washington state.

“If you succeed here, maybe you have a shot in some other states,” said Todd Donovan, a political scientist at Western Washington University.

Six states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island — plus Washington, D.C., require universal background checks for all sales and transfers of all firearms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states have varying laws on expansion beyond what federal law requires, including Oregon, which requires a background check for purchases at gun shows.

Like federal law, Washington law requires checks for sales or transfers by licensed dealers but not for purchases from private sellers, like those who sell at gun shows or to friends.

So far, the National Rifle Association has kept a low profile. According to state records, the group has spent less than $200,000 against the expansion initiative, a fraction of what has been spent by its proponents. The NRA hasn’t endorsed the opposing initiative.

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam wouldn’t address the lack of support for the anti-expansion measure, but said the group felt it was “more prudent” to put its resources toward defeating the background check expansion effort.

Arulanandam said that the NRA has two people in Washington and is spending closer to double than what’s been reflected on grass-roots efforts in the state.

“Our focus is to defeat an initiative that is extremely detrimental to the Second Amendment and extremely misleading to the people of Washington state,” he said.

A poll conducted by independent pollster Stuart Elway this summer indicated strong support, 70 percent, among voters for expansion of background checks. When asked separately about the anti-expansion initiative, less than 50 percent indicated support. But 32 percent of respondents said they were inclined to vote for both.

Fundraising uneven

Both measures started out as initiatives to the Legislature. Lawmakers didn’t take action, but under state law, the measures were guaranteed a place on the statewide ballot.

Supporters of I-594 — which would expand the number of background checks — have raised nearly $8 million, with large donations from several prominent proponents. Everytown for Gun Safety, a group funded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had already donated $1 million to the campaign, and on Thursday announced it would spend $1 million more.

Backers of the anti-expansion initiative, I-591, which also seeks to prohibit confiscation of firearms without due process, have raised just over $1 million.

Opponents of expansion take the most issue with language that would require checks for many gifts and loans. The measure has exceptions for emergency gun transfers concerning personal safety, gifts between family members, antiques and loans for hunting.

“It criminalizes lawful behavior, that’s the real problem with it,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman for Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, who is leading the campaign to block expansion.

The sponsor of the expansion initiative, Cheryl Stumbo, was wounded during a 2006 shooting at the Jewish Federation in Seattle that killed one and injured others. Naveed Haq, who had passed a background check, is serving a life sentence for the shooting.

Stumbo said the need for her measure isn’t diminished just because it wouldn’t have prevented that shooting.

“It’s like saying we shouldn’t have seat belt laws because not everyone will get in an accident,” she said. “Will it prevent every criminal that is bound and determined to get a gun? No. But it will deter a lot of them.”

Kurt Heikkila of Tenino plans to vote against expanded checks. While the initiative exempts antique guns made 1898 or earlier, Heikkila buys historical firearms made in later years through online sites.

“The way the initiative is written, I could no longer be on those forums and freely trade or sell and buy without it going through a background check, which is not free,” he said.

Hank Carson of Olympia said he is voting for expanded checks, calling it “a common-sense initiative.”

“Why require background checks for some sales and not others?” he asked. “Some inconvenience and added paperwork is a small price to pay if just one incident would be prevented by this initiative.”

Initiatives 591, 594 at a Glance

Voters in Washington state will soon weigh in on two competing measures dealing with background checks on gun sales.

Initiative 594 would expand background checks to all gun sales and transfers in Washington state, including at gun shows and person-to-person sales. Initiative 591 would prevent the state from adopting background-check laws that go beyond the national standard, which requires the checks for sales by licensed dealers but not for purchases from private sellers.

Here’s a look at some facts surrounding the current law.

CURRENT LAW IN WASHINGTON: Anyone buying a gun from a licensed dealer — at a store, gun show, or online — has to go through a background check. That check screens the buyer to make sure they aren’t a felon, a fugitive, or in the country illegally, among other disqualifiers. Private sales and transfers don’t currently require a background check under state or federal law; however, under state law, private sellers can’t sell a firearm to another person who they know or have reasonable cause to believe can’t legally possess it.

WHAT IS INVOLVED IN A BACKGROUND CHECK? People buying a long gun — such as a rifle or shotgun — from a licensed dealer fill out a federal form and the information is run through the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System. If the purchaser passes the check, they can take the long gun home immediately. The process is different for someone buying a handgun from a licensed dealer. In that case, they also fill out a separate state form that the firearm seller then sends on to the local law enforcement agency where the buyer lives. Local law enforcement checks both the FBI’s and local and state records, including the state Department of Health and Social Services. The would-be buyer must wait up to five days before taking possession of the handgun while the more extensive check is run; that waiting period can extend up to 60 days if the buyer doesn’t have a valid Washington state ID or hasn’t been a resident of the state for the previous 90 days. If the person buying a handgun has a concealed pistol license, they have an expedited process and can leave the store with their handgun as soon as they are approved by the initial FBI check, as long as they have a Washington state ID. The local form is still sent on to local law enforcement to do the more thorough background check. People who have concealed pistol licenses go through a full federal and state background check to get the permit, and need to do an updated background check every five years in order to renew their license.

HOW MANY CHECKS ARE RUN EACH YEAR IN WASHINGTON? The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed more than 560,000 firearm background checks in Washington state last year, and has processed more than 346,000 between January and the end of September of this year, according the system’s online report. That number doesn’t include the number of additional checks run by local law enforcement for handgun purchases. According to a 2013 report from the Washington State Patrol, the FBI denied more than 2,000 transactions that year and Washington law enforcement agencies denied an additional 868 sales that year based on additional local and state checks, such as mental health denials.

WHO IS PROHIBITED FROM HAVING A FIREARM? Convicted felons, fugitives from justice, drug users and/or addicts, people who have been involuntarily committed to mental institutions, those in the country illegally, people who have been dishonorably discharged from the U.S. military, people who have renounced their citizenship, people under restraining orders for harassment or stalking of a partner or child; people convicted of domestic violence.

HOW MANY MORE CHECKS MIGHT OCCUR IF INITIATIVE 594 PASSES? Supporters have said that the number is hard to predict, since the size of the private market in the state is unknown. However, they point to a fiscal note prepared by the state Office of Financial Management that shows a state Department of Licensing projection based on Colorado’s experience with expanded checks that estimated that checks for private sales and transfers would make up about 2 percent of all checks conducted in the state: about 13,440 new background checks in Washington state through July of next year. That estimate grows to 35,481 new checks for the 2015-17 biennium, and to 51,093 for the 2017-19 biennium.

WHAT CHANGES IF I-594 PASSES? Personal transactions that do not already involve a dealer would require a background check, and the person selling or transferring a firearm would either need to meet the potential buyer at a licensed dealer, who would run the check, or, if the seller were shipping the firearm, they would ship it to a dealer in the city where the potential buyer lives. Many gifts and loans that previously did not require a background check now also will have to have one before the transfer can occur. The measure includes exceptions for emergency gun transfers concerning personal safety, gifts between family members, antiques and loans for hunting. I-594 allows for licensed dealers to charge a “fee that reflects the fair market value of the administrative costs and efforts incurred by the licensed dealer for facilitating the sale or transfer of the firearm.” Also under the measure, the wait period to take possession of a handgun for those who don’t have concealed pistol licenses extends from five to 10 days unless the background check is completed before then.

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