Ire, confusion and hope over expansion of gun background checks

A key committee chair expresses cautious optimism about creating universal requirements for background checks, including at gun shows.
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A key committee chair expresses cautious optimism about creating universal requirements for background checks, including at gun shows.

The sponsor of the Legislature's first serious gun control measure of the session is optimistic about the chances for his proposal, even after a passionate, argumentative public hearing on Wednesday — and some confusion over an amendment to the bill.

The bill, sponsored by Seattle Democrat Rep. Jamie Pedersen, would require background checks on all gun sales, including between individuals and at gun shows. Current law only requires the checks when guns are sold by licensed dealers. A 100-seat hearing room quickly filled to capacity Wednesday morning, as everyone from private citizens to spokespeople for the National Rifle Association and the Washington State Nurses Association told members of the House Judiciary Committee how they felt about the bill.

Under the bill anyone who wanted to sell a gun would be required to first have police or a licensed gun dealer perform a background check on the buyer.

Pedersen, who chairs the committee, said after the hearing that he was confident the bill would be passed out of his committee. It would then go directly to the Rules Committee, which would vote on it one last time before it reached the floor of the House for a full vote. Pederson said he was "cautiously optimistic" about the bill's chances there and in the Senate.

While many testified in support of the proposal on the grounds of public health and safety, opponents of the bill repeatedly voiced concerns that the paperwork created by a background check would be used to start a registry of gun owners.

"Registration is not specifically mentioned in the bill, but it’s there," NRA representative Brian Judy said. "It's about creating a registration database."

While Judy spoke intensely, warning of a "morass of delays" for people wanting to buy guns, others expressed more personal reactions to the bill.

"You've turned your back on gun owners," said Wayde Hager of Vancouver. "You've thrown me under the bus."

Confusingly, at least some of the objections had already been addressed by an irregularly timed substitution to the bill. Normally, substitutions are drawn up after the public is given a chance for public input. But Pedersen said he received so much negative feedback about some parts of the bill that he pushed to have a substitute ready before the public hearing.

As in the hearing itself, Pedersen said, the biggest fear people expressed to him beforehand was of the records created during the background checks being used to start a state registry of gun owners. In response, Pedersen cut out one of the forms that had been required, and added a requirement to destroy the other forms used in the checks immediately after the check was complete.

Some also objected to a requirement in the original bill that holders of concealed-pistol licenses be rechecked during purchases, despite having undergone the much more stringent check required for the license itself. In response, Pedersen said the substitute exempted holders of the licenses from the background check.

That information was not broadly available at Wednesday's hearing, however, and many used some of their testimony time to stridently outline one or both of the objections. Many remarked that they had not had time to read the substitute, which was only made available shortly before the meeting started. Some, though, said the amendment didn't change their feelings specifically because they did not trust the motivations of the panel.

After the hearing Judy said that he thought all the committee members wanted to create a gun registry, even if they would not say so publicly, with the sole exception of Lake Stevens Republican Rep. Mike Hope.

"They want to know who owns guns," Judy said.

After the hearing, Judy said he was certain that, no matter what the amendment said,  gun dealers couldn't perform the checks without creating a paper trail that could be used to create a database. Delays, Judy said, would be inevitable because state law requires gun dealers to take possession of guns during the background check process, and in a catch-22 those same dealers would not be able to release the guns without a legally required waiting period.

Asked about Judy's concerns, Pedersen pointed to Oregon, which he said has laws in place similar to the one being proposed.

"It's happening successfully there," Pedersen said.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at