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Vestal: Washington gun initiatives not far apart, panic aside

Sat., Aug. 17, 2013, midnight

It’s almost possible – not quite, but tantalizingly close to possible – that a voter might reasonably support both of the competing gun initiatives in Washington.

One proposal would expand background checks for all gun sales. The other would ban government confiscation of guns.

The former is perhaps the most agreed-upon proposal in the national debate over guns. Almost everybody supports background checks, if you don’t count Congress and its heelers. The latter reflects a stubborn bit of paranoia – they’re coming to take my guns! – that derails almost every discussion about gun violence and mass shootings.

Is there a grand bargain lurking in the two ideas?

A modest proposal: How about we swap expanded background checks for an explicit prohibition that the government cannot seize legal firearms? Almost everyone could agree on those ideas. No one wants to take away anyone’s guns, and everyone supports universal background checks.

It’s too much to hope for, surely. The fear of gun confiscation grows yeastily in the distrust of apparent reality and the fear of the hidden, nefarious motive; it’s a mistrust that cannot be overcome with initiatives and laws, because initiatives and laws are part of the very thing that is mistrusted. After all, a government that would break down your door and take your shotgun would lie about plotting to break down your door and take your shotgun, would it not? And liberals would lie about anything, of course.

Still, it’s an intriguing not-quite-possibility. An interesting thought experiment. A grand bargain on guns. Just as attractive and just as unlikely as a grand bargain on the budget.

Two petition drives are now proceeding across Washington, seeking to gather enough signatures to place initiatives before the Legislature for approval. Lawmakers could also punt to the voters, which would mean we vote on these things in November 2014.

Initiative 594 would expand the current federal background check system for licensed firearm dealers to all gun sales, including gun shows and private sales.

Initiative 591 would ban government confiscation of guns. It would also gut any effort to have background checks in Washington that are not part of a uniform national system – because heaven knows, if we’re going to have background checks, we want to make sure that we have the worst possible background checks. It is this provision, more than anything else, that makes the notion of supporting both initiatives logically impossible – because I-591 would undercut, not support, background checks.

Background checks – good ones, for all guns sold – may be the most broadly supported political proposition of the moment. There is simply no measure that does not reflect this, and the support cuts across all of the lines that ordinarily divide us.

Quinnipiac University polled Americans on the question four times this year, with the last one in June. The levels of support for “requiring background checks for all gun purchases” were 92 percent, 91 percent, 90 percent and 88 percent. More than 80 percent of gun owners consistently supported the checks, as well.

The Pew Research Center polled Americans in May and found 81 percent support for universal background checks. Fox News polled Americans in April and found 82 percent support.

Opponents of background checks have little recourse in the face of such numbers but to throw dust in the air. There is simple poll denial, of course, which is a factually impermeable membrane, like believing global warming is a hoax. Another common argument is people simply don’t understand the ramifications of background checks – that people simply do not understand the slippery slope that we will be climbing on if we close the loopholes in the current background check system.

But the polling reveals some interesting insights, regarding what Americans do and do not understand. In the April Quinnipiac poll, support for background checks was high even though 48 percent of poll respondents said they thought such a system “could someday lead” to the confiscation of legally owned guns.

“The question is how many of these voters fear confiscation as an abuse of government power and how many are hoping the government uses confiscation to get more guns off the street,” said Peter Brown, assistant director of the university’s polling institute, in a news release.

I’d suggest a third category, and I’d suggest it is the largest one: voters who recognize that, in the most extreme and unlikely scenarios, in purely hypothetical visions of a science-fiction future or a Nazi Germany past, a background check system might conceivably be abused, but that here on Earth there is no reason to fear it – and in particular no reason to avoid taking the most basic precautionary measures in fear of it.

This category of voters would happily support a ban on gun confiscation. Just to try and take the paranoid hypothetical off the table.

Contact Shawn Vestal at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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