This November, Washington voters will have a choice between two, strongly opposed pieces of gun legislation. Initiative 594 would institute universal background checks for all gun purchases for all cases except transfer between family members, while Initiative 591 would eliminate Washington’s ability to pass and enforce gun control laws that do not originate with the federal government. As Seattle police have had to address increases in gun violence over the past several years, the contentious issue of gun control hits close to home for many of our neighbors.
We support the Second Amendment right of citizens to own guns,” says the I-594 campaign. “We also believe with that right comes basic responsibilities. As a society we are responsible for keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and promoting solutions that reduce gun violence.”
2013 saw a few high-profile shooting cases in Capitol Hill, while the first quarter of 2014 has had several notable incidents. The death of Capitol Hill resident Joel Reuter in July of 2013 shone a light on the ease of access to firearms, even those who are not legally permitted to possess guns. Reuter had received court-ordered treatment for mental illness within a year of his death, and recorded himself seeking information about his gun rights on the night he was killed by Seattle police for brandishing and firing a firearm from his home at the intersection of Bellevue Avenue East and Denny Way.
This year, several sporadic shootings have taken place in and around Capitol Hill. January saw a spate of incidents, including a shooting outside a restaurant on 12th Avenue, one at a home on 16th Avenue and shoot-out on 23rd Avenue that police believe was gang-related. Most of the 2014 gun violence in Seattle this year has been in South Seattle communities.
I-594 has widespread support from gun control groups. Its main sponsor is the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, and representatives from groups like Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, as well as faith communities like First United Methodist Church have voiced solidarity on the issue. The I-594 campaign has hired campaign manager Zach Silk to carry its message to the November general election. Silk is best known in Seattle for running the campaign for Referendum 74, the ballot measure that legalized same-sex marriage in Washington.
Washington already has a gun purchase background check system that licensed gun dealers must use for every transaction. This system doesn’t currently extend to private sales. It’s legal in Washington for people to sell privately-owned firearms in any setting where it’s legal to possess a firearm, including gun shows and public, outdoor spaces. I-594 would require all gun sales to take place at a licensed gun dealer and use the existing background check system, though the private sale would be exempt from sales tax. There are several exceptions to background checks in the initiative, including transfer between immediate family members, sale of antique, non-function weapons, loans for hunting or other lawful shooting (gun ranges), or temporary transfers for self-defense.
By contrast, I-591 would add new sections to Chapter 9 of the Revised Code of Washington, stating,
“It is unlawful for any government agency to confiscate guns or other firearms from citizens without due process,” and “It is unlawful for any government agency to require background checks on the recipient of a firearm unless a uniform national standard is required.”
Opponents of I-594 claim that it would increase costs and inconvenience for law-abiding gun owners and dealers, do little to curtail illegal gun possession, and create precedent for further gun restrictions in the future.
“Punishing gun owners who haven’t done anything wrong just because of what other people do is like charging people extra at the liquor store because there are drunk drivers out there. The state hasn’t been able to keep guns away from people who shouldn’t have them, and new laws won’t change that,” said gun rights activist and Capitol Hill resident Sam Cole, who plans to vote for I-591.
Opponents of I-591 suggest that the first addition to the RCW is unnecessary, as it is already unlawful for any government agency to confiscate any legal possession without due process, guns included. They also suggest that federal gun control laws are not sufficient, and are dependent on bolstering with local laws. Currently, federal gun laws do not mandate specific background checks, but do prohibit gun ownership for convicted felons and those found guilty of domestic violence, confirmed substance abusers, those diagnosed as severely mentally ill, and non-immigrating nationals of other countries who do not possess a hunting license.