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Originally published October 4, 2014 at 5:05 PM | Page modified October 7, 2014 at 8:28 PM

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What I-594 could mean for private gun sales, gun shows

Initiative 594 would expand background checks of would-be gun buyers currently required by federal law. If it passes, what should gun buyers expect? And what do current background checks entail?


Seattle Times Olympia bureau

Washington’s two gun initiatives

I-594

Would expand background-check requirements by the federal government to include private firearm transfers. Currently, checks are required just for purchases from licensed gun dealers.

I-591

Would prevent Washington state from expanding background-check requirements and reiterate that government agencies cannot confiscate firearms without due process.

Source: Seattle Times archives and bill texts

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RIDGEFIELD, Clark County — The long guns and pistols here at the Clark County fair building spill across folding tables and stack up on portable racks.

The customers, mostly older men, have come to the Vancouver Gun and Knife Show to check out weapons with classic brand names like Winchester, Remington, Browning and Ruger.

These gun shows are also where someone barred by federal law from buying a gun — a felon, say, or someone who had been committed for a mental illness — can purchase a gun at one of the tables manned by a private seller.

That anomaly in the law — critics call it a “loophole” — has put gun shows like this in the center of the debate over Initiative 594 on the November ballot.

Under current federal law, background checks are required only for sales by licensed firearms dealers. I-594 would expand those background checks to private transfers or sales, like some of the transactions at gun shows.

If the measure passes, Washington would have one of the strictest background-check laws in the nation. Just six states and the District of Columbia require such checks for all gun sales and transfers.

I-594 is also the state’s highest-profile campaign this fall.

Several wealthy donors — Bill Gates, Jr., Nick Hanauer, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer — donated millions of dollars to the pro-I-594 advocacy group Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. The group has so far raised $7.6 million, including a $1 million donation from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety.

The initiative’s backers, like Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe, say that expanding background checks would make it harder for criminals or people with severe mental illness to get guns.

“There were plenty of guys I spent my time prosecuting, where you make it a little bit harder to get a gun, they won’t get one,” said Roe.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms oppose the initiative, calling it too restrictive and warning it would criminalize some gun ownership.

Gun-rights advocates have put up their own initiative, Initiative 591, which would prevent the state from enacting any background-check law that goes beyond federal mandates. Groups that either oppose I-594 or support I-591 have raised about $1.4 million.

Here at this gun show, just north of Vancouver, some people see the measure as a step toward gun registration and eventually, a far more sinister plot.

“Registration, taxation, confiscation,” said George Mattson, a 73-year-old retiree who came here to browse for parts for his firearms. “That’s what’s coming.”

The current system

For the workers at Cascade Arms, sandwiched between a nail salon and a sex shop in a strip mall near Olympia, background checks are just everyday paperwork.

When a would-be gun buyer settles on a rifle, shotgun or handgun, employee Courtney Bodett slides across the counter a federal form that reads almost like a job application. The potential buyer jots down his or her name, date and place of birth, race and ethnicity, among other things. Then comes a series of yes-or-no answers: Is the person a fugitive from justice? In the country illegally? Dishonorably discharged from the armed forces? A drug addict?

Bodett, 29, sends all this to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), in Clarksburg, W.V.

The database, in use since 1998, screens to make sure the buyer doesn’t register on any number of disqualifiers under the law. They include being convicted of a felony or domestic-violence misdemeanor, being a fugitive from justice or an illicit-drug user, having been committed to a mental institution or dishonorably discharged from the military or living in the country illegally.

About 2 million people nationwide have been prevented from buying a gun through background checks.

Bodett can phone in or enter the information online. Many checks go through right away, although there can be a 20-minute wait on the weekends.

“I perform them all day,” Bodett said, adding later, “I just did a background check in 2 minutes.”

If the background check is denied, the store breaks the news to the customer. The government doesn’t give the store a reason for the denial. For that, the would-be buyer has to contact the FBI directly.

For handgun purchases, state law requires additional checks conducted by local law enforcement. Bodett has a form for this one, too, which is sent to local law enforcement where the would-be buyer lives.

There, law enforcement checks the Washington State Patrol’s crime database, juvenile records and the Department of Social and Health Services’ (DSHS) mental-illness database, according to Lt. Cliff Ziesemer of the Thurston County Sheriff’s Office. People who apply for a concealed-pistol license go through this process too, Ziesemer said.

Ziesemer said the sheriff’s office typically conducts between 300 and 400 checks per month for gun purchases and new or renewed concealed-pistol licenses. These checks can take up to two weeks, he said. Concealed-pistol licenses have to be renewed every five years.

State law says that people who have been involuntarily committed for 14 days or in a 90-day alternative-treatment commitment are barred from possessing a firearm. DSHS says it performs about 200,000 background check requests every year for both types of pistol checks.

Out of that pool, between 30 to 40 people are disqualified each year for involuntary mental-health commitments, according to DSHS spokesman John Wiley.

Private sales

But someone wanting to avoid a background check could buy through a private sale.

Many of those take place at a gun show, where there are tables with signs that say “private sales” or “Washington residents only.”

State law only requires that private sellers do not transfer a firearm to someone they have “reasonable cause to believe is ineligible” to possess a gun.

At the Vancouver Gun and Knife Show last weekend, a buyer could have walked up to one table, for example, and bought a Hungarian AK-47, a World War II rifle or other early- and mid-20th-century rifles and revolvers from one seller. Since it would be a private sale, no background check was required.

Many tables set up at the two-day show were for licensed-firearm dealers, who by law have to perform checks.

But the notion of spreading background checks to private sales here seems like a power grab by people who don’t understand guns, said the man overseeing the table.

“It’s 18 pages, it’s wrong,” said the seller, an 84-year-old retired sailor, referring to I-594. “It’s just like your tax bill, the IRS, you’ve got 70,000 pages of taxes and you can’t understand it and they don’t want you to.”

Leaflets and bumper stickers opposing expanded background checks could be found everywhere at the gun show.

Massachusetts law

I-594 would require the person selling or transferring the firearm to go to a licensed dealer, who would then run a background check similar to those now conducted at gun shops.

David Kopel, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver law school who advocates for gun rights, says that would be too inconvenient.

Kopel, who also works for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank that has received funding from the NRA, says Massachusetts’ law for private gun transfers is better. That system allows potential gun sellers to perform a background check online rather than having to go to a store, according to Kopel.

“You send it online to Massachusetts State Police, and they send you back with an approval or denial,” he said.

Geoff Potter, spokesman for Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is advocating for I-594, disagrees the initiative creates an undue hardship for buyers or sellers.

“I will say that the responsible gun owners that we work with don’t see going to a licensed dealer as an inconvenience,” Potter wrote in an email, noting there are nearly 1,100 gun dealers in the state.

Some sellers making a private transfer actually come in voluntarily now and have a background check conducted, according to Jeremy Beavers, co-owner of Cascade Arms.

“It protects the seller if you go and do something unbecoming with the firearm,” Beavers said.

I-594 also would begin including private pistol transfers into a loose collection of records from the background checks of handgun purchases already being conducted under state law.

Opponents to I-594 like Alan Gottlieb of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms have opposed this part of the law, calling it a gun database that could be used by the government to locate and seize guns from citizens.

“Without the pistol registry,” he wrote in an email, “ I believe we could find a good solution to expand the background-check system in the state.”

Joseph O'Sullivan: 360-236-8268 or josullivan@seattletimes.com.



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