Prosecutors’ view: Why we need I-594 to promote gun safety

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.

As prosecutors, we know that responsible gun owners are not the problem — they’re part of the solution. We are both supporters of the Second Amendment and of Initiative 594. Those of us who are gun owners believe that with rights come responsibilities. After all, hunters and target shooters are often the most concerned about the safe and responsible use of firearms.

If you’ve ever gone through a background check on a gun sale, you know that the checks are quick and easy. It seems reasonable that private sales should be subject to the same background checks that are required for a retail purchase. Colorado passed a law similar to Initiative 594 in 2013 and, in just one year, it has already stopped 227 prohibited purchasers from obtaining firearms in private sales.

Initiative 594 strikes a balance between respecting our Second Amendment rights and keeping firearms out of the hands of dangerous people. Requiring the occasional private gun seller to use a licensed firearm dealer to run a check on the prospective buyer is a very minor inconvenience. Think of this like the requirement that your car undergo emission testing before you can renew your tabs. A momentary hassle maybe, but one small personal duty done for the larger good, the air we breathe. Ensuring that the guy answering your Craigslist ad for your pistol is not a dangerous felon is a matter of public safety and a logical responsibility of the seller of that weapon.

It is past time to level the playing field and ensure that everyone in Washington passes the same background check, no matter where they buy a gun and no matter whom they buy it from. Washington voters have a chance to take an important step to keep our communities measurably safer. With Initiative 594, we have an opportunity to reduce crime and save lives — and if we can save even one life, then it’s worth it.

We hope you’ll join us in support of this common-sense measure.

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