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caption: Alan Gottlieb is backing a measure to keep private gun sales unchanged in Washington. 
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Alan Gottlieb is backing a measure to keep private gun sales unchanged in Washington.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Austin Jenkins

Do Background Checks Prevent Gun Violence?

Washington’s upcoming vote on gun laws is being closely watched around the country.

It’s the first time a state has presented voters with two competing initiatives on gun regulations – one to require universal background checks and the other to prevent them. It’s also marked a new surge in campaign donations to regulate gun sales in Washington state. Advocates for background checks call the donations “a sea change” that could have ripple effects in other states.

In a bare-bones phonebank on Seattle’s Capitol Hill, volunteers are making calls in support of Washington’s Initiative 594. Some of these people’s names have made the headlines, but for a terrible reason.

At one table sits Cheryl Stumbo, one of the initiative sponsors. She was injured in Seattle’s Jewish Federation shooting in 2006.

Across from her sits Bob Weiss, who came to the issue more recently. “I’m a survivor of gun violence,” he said. “My daughter, Veronika, was one of the students murdered at UC Santa Barbara last May.”

Weiss lives in California but is from Seattle. He’s come back to campaign for universal background checks for gun purchases.

Currently background checks are required for guns purchased from licensed dealers or for any sale across state lines. If the check reveals that the buyer has certain criminal convictions or mental health issues, the purchase is denied. Those checks aren’t required for private sales within Washington, through online ads, gun shows, or elsewhere.

Weiss said it’s true that California has universal background checks, and that didn’t stop the man who shot his daughter. “[The shooter] had licensed guns that he bought legally. So California, there wasn’t a failure there in terms of this law, but they’re working on things in California to help get guns away from the mentally ill,” he said. That’s another effort Weiss has been part of.

Those kinds of examples are troubling to retired firearms dealer Russ Haydon, of Gig Harbor. Haydon said he’s nostalgic for his high school years, when Shoreline High School had a rifle club, yet school shootings were unheard of. Haydon went on to Olympic trials in marksmanship in the 1980s and later opened a shop catering to those athletes.

Haydon looks at the shooting at Seattle Pacific University last May. “I understand that gun went through a background check,” he said, adding that the mass shootings of recent years seem more united by the mental health problems of the shooters than by regulatory shortcomings.

As a licensed dealer, Haydon did background checks routinely for gun buyers and said they’re usually quick and easy. He only had two purchases denied in 25 years.

When he considers Initiative 594 Haydon said he feels indifferent – he just doesn’t believe universal background checks will help prevent gun violence. “I think it’s going to be a kind of 'do-nothing, feel-good-about-yourself' gun law.”

But law enforcement officials said having a record of ownership for every firearm that changes hands in Washington will help them solve crimes.

One of the supporters of I-594 is King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “There’s an entire vast secondary market where people are selling guns on sites on the internet, where they meet up and sell a gun, no questions asked, for cash; we think that needs to be tightened up,” he said.

He said Colorado passed a law requiring universal background checks in 2013. It resulted in about 250 more buyers being denied firearms in its first year. “That’s 250 people who didn’t get a gun that way. It doesn’t mean they can’t get it some other way, but it makes it harder for felons to get guns and I’m all for anything that does that,” Satterberg said.

Phil Cook is a professor at Duke University who studies guns. It was his research that found private gun sales account for about 40 percent of all purchases.

But that survey, he said, is twenty years old. Law enforcement officials say online sales, especially, have likely grown since that time.

Statistics show that states with universal background checks have lower rates of police killed with handguns, and fewer women shot by their intimate partners. They also have lower rates of suicides with firearms.

But Cook said you can’t show that stricter background checks are responsible for those differences. He said the most compelling data come from Missouri, which got rid of universal background checks in 2007.

“What the evaluation documented was a jump in the homicide rate and quite a pronounced change in the flows of guns in Missouri and especially in the underground gun market.”

Cook said the effect of the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012 was to put gun rights on state legislative agendas. Ultimately, some states tightened their rules, others loosened them. What is new in Washington this year, Cook said, is the money.

The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility has raised $8.9 million in support of I-594. It’s come from big names like Michael Bloomberg’s organization, Everytown for Gun Safety, as well as locals like Nick Hanauer and Bill and Melinda Gates.

Cook said they’re challenging the historic influence of the National Rifle Association and its members. “It is a different world now and there is no safe place for political candidates, they’re going to possibly be in trouble on either side of this issue,” he said.

And the other side of the issue has its own ballot measure, Initiative 591. That initiative would leave private sales within Washington unchanged. The group Protect Our Gun Rights has raised $1.2 million toward its passage.

The initiative’s sponsor is Alan Gottlieb, of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Gottlieb said he’s not necessarily against more background checks – in the legislature’s failed attempt to pass universal background checks in 2013, Gottlieb had a compromise proposal.

But he opposes I-594 because it would expand the state’s recordkeeping on gun owners and sales. “It significantly goes far beyond anything the legislature was even dealing with in what we would look at as the worst case scenarios. That’s part of the problem of why we’re opposing it,” he said.

A problem for many gun owners is that I-594 requires background checks whenever a gun changes hands, whether it’s sold, transferred or given away. Gun owners are worried they could be penalized if they loan a friend a gun to go hunting.

But prosecutor Satterberg said allowing transfers without background checks would give private sellers a way around the new rule. “The transfer language is in 594 so that it defeats an obvious defense that a seller would have that sold a gun for cash: 'You can’t prove that I got cash, that this was a sale, I gave it away,'” he said.

But Gottlieb said it’s hard for legal gun owners to have trust that their rights won’t be diminished. “I guess the problem is the people who are behind I-594 are not friends of gun owners or care about gun rights whatsoever. So obviously we have deep suspicions based on other stuff that they’ve supported and other proposals they’ve already brought forward.”

The ultimate wild card would be for both competing ballot measures to pass – some early polls made that seem like a distinct possibility. But the latest numbers suggest that support for universal background checks is at 60 percent while 39 percent of voters support the opposite measure.

For more KUOW elections coverage, visit the Election Connection page.