George Brewholmes has been collecting firearms since he was eight years old. He worked in a pawnshop, where he would stock and sell several different types of guns. His boss bought him his first pistol, an old Iver Johnson from around the turn of the century.
Now in his 60s, Brewholmes is a retired carpenter living in West Seattle. He sets up a table at gun shows to sell some of the cheaper parts of his collection and to save up for something he has his eye on, like his favored Remington Smoot.
“For me, if I can sell a few things to cover the gas to get here and my table, I’m happy,” Brewholmes said. “I’m really happy if someone brings a gun and shows me a gun I haven’t seen before, that’s cool.”
This September, Brewholmes set up his table at the Wes Knodel Gun and Knife Show at the SW Washington Fairgrounds in Centralia. Barns and mounds of hay littered the grounds, as a garlic festival was going on next door.
Wes Knodel, the show’s promoter, said that security is his number one priority. His security team zip-ties the trigger of every gun that comes in the door.
“We make sure they’re not loaded and then tie them to where they can’t operate so somebody couldn’t pick one up off a table and pull the trigger and it it’ll go off,” he said.
Right now if you purchase a gun from a licensed dealer, under federal law you must undergo a background check. But private sales – say if you buy a gun from your friend or neighbor – do not require any kind of verification.
On the ballot in Washington this November are two dueling initiatives on this issue. Initiative 594 would require background checks for all private sales of guns. In contrast, Initiative 591 would make them illegal unless mandated by the federal government.
If Initiative 594 passes, Brewholmes will have to go through a licensed dealer to process the background check. But he says he applies his own background check – intuition.
“If a guy’s an obvious gangbanger, I won’t sell to him,” he said. “Let’s face it, if his face is all covered with tattoos and he’s got tears under one eye, he’s an idiot. He shouldn’t have a firearm.”
Brewholmes said criminals do not come to gun shows to buy guns anyway. The prices are too high and ATF officers conduct regular screenings.
And the statistics seem to agree. A 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Justice looked at 200,000 state prisoners who used a gun during a crime. It found that less than 1 percent of prisoners bought their gun at a gun show.
“Gun shows are not where the problem is the greatest, it’s the most visible,” said Dr. Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis.
But he pointed to Missouri, where comprehensive background checks were repealed in 2007. Since then, homicide by firearms increased by 25 percent – with no major increases in homicides by other means.
When background checks were required for private sales at gun shows in Oregon, Wes Knodel’s business went down by about 20 percent. So this time, he supports Initiative 591, which would forbid the state from conducting background checks unless the federal government establishes a uniform national standard.
But, if Washington passes both I-591 and I-594 – essentially voting for both more and less background checks in the same election – no one really knows what will happen.
For more KUOW elections coverage, visit the Election Connection page.