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Ex-Rep. Giffords looks for a missing ingredient in gun control

Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords testifies for Initiative 594 with her husband, Mark Kelly. Credit: John Stang

Former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle "Gabby" Giffords and several other gun-shooting victims called for Washington to expand background checks on gun show and online sales Tuesday.

Others called Initiative 594 a trap to create a Big Brother-like database and a tripwire to make any innocent loan of a gun an illegal act.

Gabrielle Giffords and husband Mark Kelly/Photo by John Stang

On Tuesday, the Washington House Judiciary Committee heard public testimony on two competing citizens initiatives that will go to November public referendums if the Legislature does not pass them first. And it's not expected to act. Initiative 591 would prohibit any government from confiscating firearms without due process and would forbid state background checks of gun recipients until a national standard is created. Initiative 594 would expand the background checks made by licensed gun dealers to include gun show sand online sales.

Judiciary committee chairwoman Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, expressed doubt that either initiative would make it out of her committee because neither would likely capture a 50-vote majority needed to pass the full House.

Hundreds of people showed up Tuesday with slightly more than 100 able to cram into the committee hearing room. Giffords was the star attraction.

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On Jan. 8, 2011, Jared Lee Loughner tried to assassinate Giffords while spraying a crowd with gunfire in Casas Adobes, Ariz., killing six and wounding 19. A bullet went through Giffords' brain. She had to resign from Congress because of the long effort needed to recover. She and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, founded a pro-gun control organization Americans For Responsible Solutions.

In a high-pitched, occasionally wobbly voice Giffords could testify only briefly. "Stopping gun violence takes courage, the courage to do what is right, the courage to do new ideas. … We must never stop fighting — fight, fight, fight."

Her husband did most of the testifying afor the couple. "It too dangerous to wait. …  Here in Washington, you've seen mass shooting after mass shooting," he said, citing the Jewish Federation, Lakewood police and Cafe Racer killings of recent years. He said, "5,692 Washingtonians were killed with guns from 2001 to 2010. That's more than the American soldiers killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan."'

Kelly said the couple own guns: "We are pro-gun ownership, but anti-gun violence."

Testimony went back and forth. One side said background checks keep guns away from criminals with little effort. The other side, including people who had defended themselves with guns, said criminals will get guns regardless of whether checks exist.

Cheryl Stumbo survived Seattle's 2006 Jewish Federation mass shooting that killed one and wounded five including her. "I'm covered with scars and live with daily pain," she said. "I'm lucky to be alive and am talking to you today." Her father, Stan Stumbo, is a gun owner who quit the National Rifle Association because of its opposition to background checks. "I believe universally applied background checks are essential," he said.

Jim Forsythe of Whidbey Island lost a brother in a 2012 Oregon mall-shooting spree. "I hope none of you ever know what it feels like to lose a loved one to gun violence," he told the committee.

Expanding background checks "is going to be hard to do," said the Rev. Steve Baber, a Methodist minister from Seattle. "It's going to be harder to hear of a shooting and hear that the shooting occurred at somewhere where you know the people."

Opponents of I-594 argued that criminals would easily dodge background checks at gun shows. "This won't stop people from firing guns illegally," said gun dealer Robin Ball.

NRA lobbyist Brian Judy said: "I- 594 is about universal handgun registration. … I-594 will create a massive government database of lawful gun owners … why does a handful of millionaires financing 594 want a database of lawful gun owners?"

Judiciary committee member Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snohomish, asked Judy whether I-594 would incrementally increase police powers to enable them to more easily search homes. "Absoutely," Judy replied.

"Universal gun registration is the Holy Grail of the gun control community," said Joe Waldron, chairman of the Gun Owners Action League.

Some argued that the wording of I-594 would make lending a gun to another person illegal because it would be considered a transfer under the proposed law. Annette Walker is a Seattle shooting instructor who has loaned rifles to students for practice in the spirit of her past instructors loaning rifles to her. "I never felt like a criminal in doing this. If 594 passes, it would make me a criminal," she said.

Alan Gottleib, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, argued for the other measure, I-591, saying it "is not and never has been designed to prevent background checks. Our goal from the outset has been to make sure any such check conducted in Washington lives up to a uniform standard."

For exclusive coverage of the state government, check out Crosscut's Under the Dome page.

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