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In Our View: Background Checks? Yes

I-594's expansion of safeguards on gun sales, transfers a reasonable step

The Columbian
Published: October 14, 2014, 5:00pm

Washington voters in next month’s election will consider competing, incompatible gun-control measures that undoubtedly will lead to confusion. We’ll try to keep it simple: Vote “yes” on Initiative 594; vote “no” on I-591.

Of course, these are merely recommendations. As The Columbian routinely emphasizes, we trust voters to become informed about the issues, to employ due diligence, and then to cast a ballot that reflects their personal beliefs. There likely is no issue on this fall’s ballot that touches upon personal philosophy more directly than gun rights.

I-594, to quote the Voters’ Pamphlet, “would apply currently used criminal and public safety background checks by licensed dealers to all firearm sales and transfers, including gun show and online sales, with specific exceptions.” While Washington requires background checks for purchases at a gun store, such checks are not required at gun shows or for online purchases. Somebody who knows they cannot pass a background check — a felon, domestic abuser, or person with a history of mental illness — need not bother going to a gun dealer when they can attend a gun show and bypass background checks. This is an egregious loophole in the law.

Yet perhaps the best argument in favor of I-594 is provided by those who are opposed to it. The argument against the measure published in the Voters’ Pamphlet leads with “Initiative 594 is an unfunded mandate that diverts scarce law enforcement resources … .” Meanwhile, the financial impact statement for the measure indicates that state expenditures for the Department of Licensing over the next five years will be less than $1 million, and annual enforcement expenses for the state are estimated at $50,000, as are local expenditures. By focusing upon minor expenses for I-594, opponents are indicating that they have few arrows in their quiver — or should we say few bullets in their chamber?

I-594 would represent only an incremental change in the state’s gun-control laws, and only incremental improvement in public safety; extending background checks would not prevent the bad guys from obtaining guns through black-market sales. I-594 is not a solution to gun violence, but it is a reasonable step in the right direction. Meanwhile, the measure presents a long list of exceptions — for example, transfer of a weapon between spouses or transfer for use at a shooting range — that would not require a background check.

While I-594 presents a reasonable — if imperfect — approach to public safety, I-591 is a mess of a proposal that should be rejected outright. The idea “would prohibit government agencies from confiscating guns or other firearms from citizens without due process, or from requiring background checks on firearm recipients unless a uniform national standard is required.” Proponents write that, “Initiative 591 protects against illegal search and seizure, preventing politicians and bureaucrats driven by an anti-rights agenda from depriving citizens of their property without due process.” In other words, supporters are advocating for a law to prevent something that already is illegal. I-591 is entirely unnecessary and reckless, an attempt to instill fear in the populace by focusing on nonexistent goblins while turning attention away from a much-needed discussion.

That important discussion can be found in I-594, a proposal that actually is worthy of consideration. By removing a gaping hole in the background-check law, I-594 is neither a panacea nor a monstrous intrusion of personal rights. But it is a reasonable effort to make society more civilized.

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