OLYMPIA - Gun-control opponents and supporters packed a hearing room on the Capitol campus in Olympia last Wednesday to testify about a bill requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.
Background checks are currently required by state law when buying a gun from a licensed firearms dealer, but not between private, unlicensed citizens. HB 1588 would require a background check for gun sales by private parties.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle), requires the seller to request a National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) check on the buyer from a licensed dealer or local law enforcement, either of which may charge up to $20 for the service.
Under the bill, the background check requirement would not apply to the sale of antique guns.
NICS checks are usually immediate, but if one is delayed for more than three days the transaction would be allowed to go through without it under provisions in the bill. The same rule currently applies to licensed gun dealers.
Pedersen explained that the bill is a common-sense approach to keeping guns out of the hands of violent criminals and those who are dangerous and mentally ill.
"I believe we have broad agreement in our society that there are some classes of people who should not have guns," he said, speaking to the House Judiciary Committee that conducted the hearing.
Pedersen maintained that background checks are an effective way to prevent criminals from obtaining guns and extending the requirement to private transactions, which represent 40 percent of firearms sales in Washington, would help further reduce gun violence.
Don Pierce of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs stated that members of his organization support the right of a citizen to own a gun, except for those not allowed to by law.
"The only way that we can really know for sure that we're limiting the number of gun transactions to felons is to create a background-check process," said Pierce.
Opponents of the bill claimed it would only affect law-abiding citizens; criminals, they argued, don't follow laws and would obtain guns illegally.
"Since it's already illegal for a felon to purchase a handgun anywhere from anyone," said Linda Wilson, a Clark County gun-owner, claiming that responsible gun-owners are aware of the law, "how is regulating the sale of guns by a law-abiding gun-owner going to change any action by a criminal?"
Others raised concerns about the possibility of a gun-owner database being created from background-check paperwork. The original version of the bill released to the public does not require government agencies to destroy the request forms once the background checks are completed.
"What this is really all about is not really regulating private transactions," said Brian Judy of the National Rifle Association. "It's about creating a registration database."
The bill would effectively create a registry for rifles and shotguns similar to federal handgun registration, claimed Alan Gottlieb of the Citizen's Committee to Keep and Bear Arms.
A proposed change to the bill, which was not available until just before the hearing, would require agencies to destroy the forms used to request a background check and would not require a background check on buyers with state concealed-pistol permits.
Licensed dealers may be the only way for a private seller to obtain a background check. According to some who addressed the committee, many police departments have policies against running background checks for private, non-licensed citizens.
Rep. Mike Hope (R-Snohomish), a co-sponsor of the bill and a Seattle police officer when not serving in the Legislature, and Seattle Police Department Deputy Chief of Operations Nick Metz, said it's against their department's policy to run background checks for private citizens. The bill doesn't address those policies.
Randal Bragge, a resident of Belfair, said he called the Mason County Sheriff's office and was told it would not perform a background check for an unlicensed gun seller.
Metz maintained that police aren't opposed to responsible gun ownership, but if licensed gun shops need to do a background check then unlicensed sellers should, too.
Judy noted that some private gun owners can and do voluntarily request a background check on prospective buyers through a licensed dealer, but for a higher fee than the proposed bill provides.
"Dealers charge anywhere from $30 to $60; it's very likely they won't be able to do this for $20, and it could have the impact of shutting down private transactions," he said.
Under terms of the bill, dealers would not be required to perform a background check for private gun transactions when asked.
Dinah Griffey, identifying herself as a domestic-violence survivor, believes regulations on buying guns hurt women by restricting their ability to defend themselves.
"I told myself at that time that I will never, never allow myself to be a victim," said Griffey.
"Every time you limit a woman's right to defend herself you empower her attacker," she said.
More people die from guns than car crashes in King County, according to Dr. David Fleming, director and health officer for Seattle Public Health.
"All these injuries and deaths are inherently preventable and therefore gun violence is a public-health problem," Fleming said.
Some solutions are controversial, noted Fleming, but background checks shouldn't be.
"If we as a society believe some people should not have guns then we must put a system in place that makes it as unlikely as possible that they're able to buy them," he said.
Kim Latterell, an evangelical pastor in Pierce County as well as a hunter and gun-owner, supports gun rights, but believes that such rights come with conditions, including training, safe storage, licensing and regulation. HB 1588 is a first step in a long process of making communities safer, he offered.
"Government is a good gift of God and, when government protects the most vulnerable among us, then they are a good government indeed," he said.
The bill is scheduled for a committee vote tomorrow (Feb. 19).
- Zoey Palmer is a reporter for the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.