The current gun sales law in Washington state is pretty simple: You can’t buy a gun if you’re under 18, have a felony conviction on your record, or if you’ve been involuntarily committed for mental health treatment.
Any one of the more than 1,000 federally-licensed firearms dealers in the state — for instance, your local sporting goods store — will run a quick background check on a customer who wants to buy a gun over the counter. But private gun sellers and buyers — who sell and trade guns at gun shows, on the Internet, or even in parking lots — do not have to ask or answer any questions. We think that “no questions asked” is a pretty careless way of deciding who can have a gun.
While it is a crime to “knowingly” sell a gun to someone who is legally ineligible to possess one, a situation in which all gun sales don’t go through the same background check leaves it to the word of the buyer that he or she is eligible to obtain a gun. It's “don’t ask, don’t tell” when guns are sold without a background check.
The best evidence shows that millions of guns are sold in this country through private sales, where no background check is done. A law that applies sometimes isn’t much of a law at all. That is why we support Initiative 594.
Between now and November, you’ll be hearing a lot about Initiative 594. The important thing to remember is this: It will help keep guns out of the hands of convicted felons, people with severe mental illness, domestic abusers and other dangerous people. It won’t be perfect, or solve everything, but it will certainly help prevent some tragedies from happening.
Initiative 594 improves the current law. It simply helps us enforce existing law by closing a loophole and making the law consistent: All gun sales in Washington State, including those by private sellers at gun shows, over the Internet and in parking lots, will go through the same easy background check. Private sales would go through licensed dealers and use the same process that has worked for years — a process that has kept more than 2 million dangerous people from getting firearms.
As county prosecutors in Washington State, we know firsthand the tragedies that can occur when criminals get their hands on firearms. In 2011, a man who bought a handgun in Washington State through a private seller — with no background check — later stalked and murdered Jitka Vesel, who he had met online. In states with background checks on private sales, 38 percent fewer women are shot to death by their intimate partners.
Although there is no one solution to gun violence, we know that background checks reduce crime and save lives. In states requiring a background check for private handgun sales, 39 percent fewer law enforcement officers are shot to death with handguns and there are 17 percent fewer aggravated assaults involving a firearm. Gun trafficking out of those states dropped 64 percent.
How many senseless acts of gun violence will Initiative 594 stop? We can’t measure this, of course, but to ask the question is to suggest that a certain number of tragic acts of gun violence are acceptable so that we can continue to buy and sell guns “no questions asked.” Perhaps we have had to meet with too many families who have lost a loved one in a senseless act of gun violence, but it seems to us that if Initiative 594 can stop even one of these preventable crimes, it is the right thing to do.
We are joined by many in our support of this common-sense measure. There is broad agreement about strengthening our firearms laws among gun owners, hunters and NRA members. A long list of people from across the state agree that consistent background checks make sense, including the League of Women Voters, parents and teachers, law enforcement, faith leaders, mayors, and survivors of gun violence. This is a measure that the non-partisan Elway Poll shows is supported by 72 percent of Washingtonians. It is not controversial, nor should it be contentious.
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