Background check gun bill dies by 1,000 cuts

A bill to require background checks dies despite hours of delay, arm bending and theatrics.
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Zack Hudgins, Sam Hunt, Larry Springer, Jamie Pedersen

A bill to require background checks dies despite hours of delay, arm bending and theatrics.

Sometimes, even a visit from the governor isn't enough.

The biggest gun control bill to emerge from the first half of the state's 2013 lawmaking session died an agonizing, drawn-out death at the hands of politics this week. And it took a few other bills down with it.

The proposal was House Bill 1588, Seattle Democratic Rep. Jamie Pedersen's effort to close the gun show loophole. As originally proposed, the bill would have required background checks on any sale of a firearm. The checks are currently only required on sales by licensed gun dealers. By including sales between individuals, the bill proposed walling off the last avenues open in the state for obtaining a gun without such a check. It even had a Republican co-sponsor.

But that all came to a grinding halt Monday, when House Democrats found themselves just a few votes shy of the 50 needed to pass the House, where they have firm control with 57 members. And that's when things got crazy — or as crazy as things ever get in a roomful of politicians who know they're on camera.

First, Gov. Jay Inslee showed up. After spending time in Speaker Frank Chopp's office and other private rooms on the Democratic side of the House, the governor came out and spoke to assembled reporters alongside Pedersen. Finally, Inslee stepped out onto the floor of the House — a large room at the center of the action, where every representative has a personal desk and voting button — to talk with Rep. Maureen Walsh, a Walla Walla Republican.

Then came the call from Congresswoman-turned-gun-control-advocate Gabrielle Giffords, also to Walsh. Meanwhile, rumors — never confirmed — flew of an expected call from Vice President Joe Biden.

But, for all the Democratic show, no vote came Monday. Instead, the Democrats, who as the House majority dictate the tempo of the chamber and what bills are voted on, ran other bills late into the night, keeping legislators on the floor until after 10 p.m.

By Tuesday morning, few arms were left to twisted. Still, no vote came. Instead, Democrats gathered in their private chambers, a process known as "caucusing" and generally used to line up votes and horse-trade support for a proposal. Then they came back out. And went back in. And came back out. And went back in.

Only five bills were considered Tuesday — four in the morning and one in the afternoon — in a chamber that usually hears more than five bills before lunch. Instead of hearing bills, between caucus meetings, moderate Representatives holding potentially key votes went into and out of the office of the head of the Democratic caucus, and everyone else waited.

At least part of the deliberations centered on some of the 10 amendments attached to the bill, especially one added late in the process that would have drastically changed the effect of the awaited vote.

That amendment was to simply send the bill to a vote by citizens of the state in the general election later in the year. It changed the bill from a proposed law, essentially, to a proposed referendum. Even if the bill made it out of the legislature, citizens would still have to approve it, potentially providing some political cover to moderate or conservative lawmakers considering voting in favor of the bill.

But, when the amendment was added and those lawmakers came on board, others pulled their support, keeping the bill just shy of the 50 votes required to pass. Instead of simply letting the bill go to a vote and risking failure, House Democratic leadership chose to wait, forcing everyone else to wait with them.

Finally, shortly after 8 p.m. Tuesday — after a day at a standstill — Pedersen threw in the towel, declaring the bill dead. Instead of even bringing the bill to the floor for a vote, the Democrats simply moved on.

The choice to spend so much time on one bill, however, was not without consequences.

Wednesday, the day after the impasse, the House listed more than 50 bills on its daily calendar, the document that shows those measures waiting for a vote on the House floor. The only problem was that the cutoff for House bills was at 5 p.m. that same day.

Among those waiting were measures concerning breaks for hospital workers, apprenticeship requirements and child support.

By the end of Wednesday, only a small handful of the 50 had been considered. Included in those was the governor's Dream Act providing opportunities in higher educaiton for the children of undocumented immigrants, along with a handful of other, less-controversial bills. Some, too, may be brought for consideration as budget measures later in the session. But for more than a few, time spent on guns, an issue in the spotlight, meant no luck this year.


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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