The Battle Over Background Checks Begins as Gun Control and Gun Rights Advocates Meet In Oly

One arguably unproductive year after President Obama called for gun-control legislation, the fight has come to Washington state.

“This is the beginning of the dialogue we’ll have from now until November,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins. The Tacoma Democrat had just sat down at her desk in the House hearing room to begin a meeting of the House Judiciary Committee in Olympia last week. She didn’t add that the dialogue will at times be teary-eyed emotional, statistically arguable, and borderline hysterical. It went without saying, since this dialogue will be about guns.

You could see this as the first people approached the microphones. One of them moved in an unsteady slide-step, one of the effects of being shot in the head in a Safeway parking lot three years ago. This was Gabby Giffords, there to push for more gun laws. She would be followed to the microphone by the gun lobbyists there to push for fewer laws.

Some of the gunners would make a point of saying they were sorry about what happened to the then-U.S. Congresswoman outside the Tucson, Ariz., supermarket when a paranoid Jared Lee Loughner opened fire with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol, sporting a 33-round magazine. But as Giffords steadied herself on her husband’s arm, inching toward a chair at the microphone, a few audience members snickered. She was a “gun celebrity,” someone in a row behind me said in a loud whisper. Her husband, Mark Kelly, spoke first.

“A madman shot my wife, congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, through the head, before proceeding to murder six and wound 12 others,” began the compact and mustachioed man with a shaved head, sitting at her side. The packed room drew quiet. At least a hundred other folks who’d come to hear or talk about the pair of dueling gun initiatives that are most likely to wind up on the November ballot listened in the darkened hallway and in an overflow room nearby.

“Here in Washington, you’ve seen mass shooting after mass shooting,” the retired astronaut continued, listing some of the bloody killing fields—Ravenna’s Café Racer, the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle, a coffee shop in Lakewood. He noted that more than 5,000 Washingtonians died by gunfire from 2001 to 2012, more than the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Initiative 594 could lower those numbers, he argued. The initiative, which would expand background checks to all gun sales and some transfers (effectively making private sales subject to the requirements of licensed-dealer sales), has some heavyweight backers behind it, including former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. In 14 states where similar laws have passed, Kelly said, fewer women are being shot by their mates, gun trafficking has dropped 48 percent, and suicide by gun has been cut almost in half.

Kelly and Giffords, who started their own gun-violence protection group after the Tucson shooting, have become advocates for gun-control measures though they are gun owners. It’s sensible to be both, he said.

“We have our firearms for the same reason that millions of Americans just like us have guns,” he said. “To defend ourselves, to go hunting, target shooting, or just to collect and appreciate firearms for what they are.” But, said Kelly, who as a Navy aviator was once stationed on Whidbey Island and flew combat in Desert Storm, “[gun] rights demand responsibility. And this right should not extend to criminals. It should not extend to the dangerous mentally ill, it should not extend to abusers and to those who would perpetrate violence against women.” Expanding background checks will help weed them out, he said.

Rep. Brad Klippert, a Republican from Kennewick, thought otherwise. “Do you think,” he asked, “if this does pass, that criminals would in fact register their weapon transfers?” That drew a few agreeable chuckles from the gun-rights crowd, none of whom seemed to be packing weapons, per their leadership’s recommendation. “Open Carry is NOT recommended at these hearings,” read a notice at the website of Washington Arms Collectors, which has given $250,000 to support rival Initiative 591. “The Mom’s Demand [Action] crowd will not only be out in force, they will be dragging every victim they can find to the hearings in an appeal to legislators’ sense of pity (rather than common sense). As a result, the chairs of BOTH the Senate and House committees have requested that there be no open carry, ‘for the sake of the victims.’ ”

Kelly agreed that some criminals will still obtain weapons illegally if 594 is approved, and there will of course continue to be gun violence. But since 1999, almost two million criminals and mentally ill people have been denied guns because of the federal background checks currently in place, which would be expanded by 594. “So,” he answered, “I think it goes a long way to prevent most criminals from getting a firearm.”

Gun lobbyist Brian Judy, who represents 90,000 state members of the National Rifle Association, didn’t buy a word of it. He seemed to be tasting poison when, after approaching the microphone, he uttered the words “universal handgun registration scheme.” He was certainly sorry about what happened to Giffords, he said, and also for Cheryl Stumbo, the leader of the I-594 movement, who had spoken briefly about her wounds as a victim in the 2006 Jewish Federation shootings that left one dead and six wounded. After 20 surgeries, including a hysterectomy, she said, “I’m covered with scars and live with daily pain, but I’m one of the lucky ones. I’m alive and speaking to you today.”

Thing is, said Judy, “along with the empathy I feel for these victims, I feel disappointment that these tragedies will be exploited to push such a far-reaching antigun agenda. Especially an agenda with no relationship to either of these incidents. You see, in both Tucson and Seattle, the shooter purchased his firearm from a licensed dealer after undergoing a background check.”

This proposed expansion of the law wouldn’t have stopped those kind of shooters, he insisted. Besides, criminals will ignore the law anyway, he argued, and will continue to get their guns the usual ways—through theft, black market, straw purchases, and illegal sources. I-594 is merely a well-disguised handgun-registration plot, he insisted—a scheme to put more law-abiding handgun owners into a massive government database that can be used against them. The initiative would also make it illegal to hand a gun over to a family member, by his reckoning. Since there’d be no background check, giving his son a gun would make him a criminal.

According to the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the backer of I-594 with a $1.4 million war chest, that’s a misconception. If the initiative becomes law, background checks would not be required when a gun is 1) gifted to an immediate family member, 2) transferred temporarily for use in self-defense, 3) an antique or relic weapon, or 4) loaned for lawful hunting or sporting activities.

Phil Shave of Washington Arms Collectors argued that faulty point as well. “It makes criminals of people who merely hand a gun out on a range to another person.” Shave also seemed to contradict his contention that police would actually seek out such transgressions when he also complained that “law enforcement does not have the resources to either process the millions of applications or to then proceed to enforce a law that ropes this many people into the criminal-justice system.”

What most worried Judy, the NRA rep, was that proponents of I-594 “are going to try to buy this proposed law with emotion and obfuscation.” He seemed to be saying that’s something the NRA would never do. Well, not again, anyway. It was after all the gun lobby that used fear and misinformation to pump up record gun sales and a flood of donations in recent years. During the 2012 White House campaign, the lobby claimed President Obama was scheming to confiscate guns from lawful Americans. Believers rushed the retail gun racks—even though in his first four years in office, Obama signed all of two gun bills, both of which expanded the rights of gun users. In the year since his re-election and a doomed proposal to toughen gun laws following the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, sales have contined upward. In 2013 the feds performed 21 million background checks, an eight percent increase over 2012.

The gun lobby delights in shooting down background-checks proponents who bring up “irrelevant” mass murders. These are the mall and school and office shootings by gunmen who skirted around background checks or may have even passed them. At a second Olympia hearing last week, by the Senate Law and Justice Committee, where much of the previous day’s testimony was repeated, Republican Senator Steve O’Ban from University Place led Judy through a series of questions about such shootings—from Tucson to Seattle to Newtown—where background checks had no effect. His dog-and-pony show concluded, O’Ban said what’s needed is not another law but a way to be “more aggressive in identifying” these “deranged killers.”

Sen. Adam Kline, the Seattle Democrat, picked up on O’Ban’s questioning and noted that in a six-month period, 56 dangerous mentally-ill applicants were turned up in state background checks. Expanding the checks to cover more gun sales and putting more emphasis on identifying the mentally ill, he suggested, seemed like a good way to turn up those potential killers. (Indeed, Seattle Assistant Police Chief Carmen Best says the department backs I-594, feeling it will provide more information in linking guns to the more than 10,000 people with mental-health issues handled by SPD the past two years.)

Kline also queried Alan Gottlieb, campaign manager for Initiative 591, the “Protect Our Gun Rights” act that would effectively keep things as is, requiring any background checks to follow a “uniform national standard” and prohibit the confiscation of guns without due process. Gottlieb, whose Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms has given $280,000 to underwrite his I-591 campaign, had mentioned that background checks under I-594 wouldn’t be be 100 percent effective—far from it. Well, Kline asked, is that a reason for not trying to do this? That the proposal is not perfect? “There are just better, less intrusive ways,” contended Gottlieb, whose organization has spent millions around the U.S. resisting gun-control efforts.

But it was Bainbridge Island House Democrat Drew Hansen who caused the gun lobby to veer off its talking points during the hearing, asking Shave “my dumb question: If these background checks are so burdensome and horrible,” he said, “and they don’t do any good,” then why were Shave and other gun fanciers bothering with background checks at gun shows? Said Shave: “We do them because we want to assure the members that they are engaging in a transaction with somebody who should possess a firearm.” Hansen smiled. That’s the point of I-594, too.

Another point, said I-594 leader Stumbo, was the cost—not just in lives, but money. Her $1 million-plus in medical bills were paid by the state, she notes, because “luckily, I was shot at work. I would have been financially ruined if I had been shot in a movie theater or at a school or in a shopping mall or at a cafe.” Then there was the cost of trials and imprisoning, for life, Naveed Afzal Haq, the man who shot her and her co-workers, having gained entry to the secure offices by holding a gun to the head of Stumbo’s teenage niece. “Think of the economic impact alone of just that one shooting,” said Stumbo. “Multiply that by the Washingtonian killed by gunfire every 14 hours. Then add in all of those who were shot and injured but survived like me. Think about the impact of all that gun crime on our state coffers, on our communities, and your constituents.” If expanded background checks reduced those harms by even just 10 percent, she said, over time we will save a treasury in dollars and lives.

But like all the other arguments offered during the hearing, Stumbo’s fiscal appeal is unlikely to result in action. The dialogue of emotion and statistics and entrenched opinion promises to continue, but the two proposals will inevitably head for a fall statewide vote, likely to pass through Olympia untouched by wary lawmakers, who have the political option of turning initiatives into law rather than sending them to a public vote.

Nonetheless, Gabby Giffords spoke, in a voice struggling for volume and enunciation.

“Thank you for inviting me here today,” she said in a thin, sing-song cadence after her husband introduced her. She leaned into the microphone in the near-stillness of whirring and clicking cameras. “The last few years have been hard,” she was saying when her tongue twisted. “I feach every day fulfluvful and you shan too,” is how it sounded from the 43-year-old gunshot victim who has spent the past two years relearning how to walk, talk, read, and write.

She pushed on. “Stopping gun violence takes courage, the courage to do what’s right, the courage of new ideas. I’ve seen great courage when my life was on the line. Now is the time to come together, be responsible. Democrats, Republicans, everyone, we must never stop fighting.” She shook a frail fist. “Fight fight fight,” she said just above a whisper. “Be bold, be courageous, the nation is counting on you. Thank you.”

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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