The recent Washington Arms Collectors gun show at the Puyallup fairgrounds had a celebratory feel to it.
Gone was the sense of desperation that characterized crowds swarming gun stores over the past month, stripping shelves of guns and ammo.
Instead, as thousands of gun owners roamed the exhibition halls over the Feb. 23 weekend, fingering rifle barrels, hefting pistols and sifting through the latest National Rifle Association T-shirts and bumper stickers, the collective blood pressure appeared to have dropped to a more normal level.
The previous day in Olympia, the state Senate Law & Justice Committee rejected five gun-control bills, slowing to a crawl the momentum provided by the elementary school massacre in Connecticut.
More than a dozen other gun-control proposals – including one that would have banned assault weapons – missed the deadline for policy bills and were circling the legislative drain.
“You’ve got some representatives out of Seattle that march to a different drummer,” said Bill Huff, an NRA member from Federal Way, enjoying french fries at a fast-food concession, set up a few feet from a 50-caliber machine gun display.
“You can legislate all you want,” Huff said, “but some of these things they want to do aren’t going to work.”
One of the only gun-related proposals that still has a faint pulse in Olympia – a bill that would expand criminal and mental health background checks to include private gun sales – is something that even many gun rights advocates concede is a good idea – at least in theory.
It’s a policy enforced by organizers of the Puyallup gun show, unlike many others across the country.
You must join the Washington Arms Collectors organization to buy or sell guns at its shows. Membership requires a check against databases of convicted felons and involuntarily committed mental patients. No gun sales otherwise. No exceptions.
“I realize it’s needed,” said Robert Stevenson, an adamant gun rights supporter from Tacoma sitting across the table from Huff. He objects not to universal background checks but to the details of the current proposal.
“It’s too expensive,” he said. “It’s too time consuming.”
“What if I want to give my grandson a gun on his 14th birthday?” Stevenson asked. “He’d have to have a background check to receive a personal gift from his family. That is not right. It’s a government intrusion.”
Gun-control supporters have tried for years to pass a bill that would expand background checks in Washington. But this year’s plan – House Bill 1588, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle – is getting a longer look than usual.
One reason is that it’s supported by Republican lawmaker Mike Hope, whose day job is working as a Seattle police officer. Another is that gun rights activist Alan Gottlieb, head of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, might support some version of it.
The bill squeaked out the House Judiciary Committee on a 7-to-6 vote, amended to include some of the changes requested by Gottlieb and others.
As things stand, state and federal laws prohibit gun ownership by convicted felons and those who have been involuntarily committed to mental hospitals.
Gun dealers are required to use the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, to make sure buyers aren’t prohibited from owning guns. The FBI operates the National Crime Information Center, or NCIC, a database of criminal justice information, including criminal histories. It’s mostly used by law enforcement and criminal justice agencies.
Neither federal nor Washington state law requires background checks for transactions between private parties. HB 1588 would require private sellers to request background checks, too.
At a public hearing Feb. 13, supporters noted that dealer sales make up only 60 percent of firearm sales. The fact that prohibited people can legally buy guns at gun shows or from private parties makes the existing background check law meaningless, they said.
“We know that when gun checks are done with licensed dealers that tens of thousands of people who are trying to buy those guns are prevented,” said Dr. David Fleming, director of Public Health-Seattle & King County. “Extending that more universally will extend the number of people who are not able to purchases guns because it’s illegal for them to have them.”
According to the FBI, more than 100 million NICS checks have been made in the past 10 years, leading to more than 700,000 denials.
Gottlieb and other opponents railed against the original version of HB 1588, arguing it would have created an expensive and cumbersome regulatory scheme that would not reduce gun violence.
They feared the checks would create what amounts to a registration database, which would apply not only to pistols but also to rifles and shotguns.
“We’ve been hearing for years about closing the so-called ‘gun show loophole,’” said NRA lobbyist Brian Judy. “There is no such thing. This bill is really about creating a database of gun owners. It’s about registration.”
Since then, the bill has been changed to accommodate several of those objections.
As revised, the bill would exempt people who have valid Washington concealed pistol licenses, a process that requires a background check. It also would exempt federally licensed gun collectors and the sale of “curios or relics.”
Most significantly though, the amendments require that local police and other government agencies keep no record of the sales.
Rep Steve Kirby, D-Tacoma, sided with Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, who unanimously turned it down. Kirby said he voted against HB 1588 because he feared that, as written, it could have inadvertently created a database of gun owners. That was not what sponsors had in mind, he said, and it would have doomed the bill.
“I wasn’t satisfied that the bill was fully cooked,” Kirby said. “It was a work in progress.
“What we want is to make it harder for people who shouldn’t have guns to get guns,” he said. “If that’s all we do, then everybody is reasonably happy. But if there’s something embedded in the law that results in a database, then that will be viewed as registration. Then it just becomes radioactive.”
The database was eliminated in subsequent versions, Kirby said, and he thinks the bill that will be presented to the full House and, perhaps sent to the Senate, has a fair chance of passing.
“I think we can get there,” he said. “I really do.”
TRACK MENTAL ILLNESS
At the Puyallup gun show, Bill Huff brought up another reason he doesn’t think expanded background checks will do enough good to make them worthwhile.
Keeping guns out of the hands of dangerously mentally ill people is critical, he said, but there are no adequate ways of identifying or tracking people with those conditions.
“The mental health field has been so shortchanged for so many years,” he said. “That’s why you see these problems come up.”
Background checks wouldn’t find those people, Huff said.
“It’s only for people who have been involuntarily committed,” he said, “and that doesn’t begin to capture everybody.”
Another gun-related bill still alive in the legislative session is an attempt to alleviate that problem.
Senate Bill 5282, proposed by Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, would streamline data collection and retrieval for those involuntarily committed to mental hospitals, bringing order to a system that Carrell says is time consuming and ineffective. The system is only as good as the data, Carrell said. “This thing is a huge hairball,” he said. “Too often, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.”
While Washington’s system of identifying seriously mentally ill people has shortcomings, FBI data analyzed in 2011 ranks Washington second in the nation in reporting records of mentally ill people to the national background check database.