OLYMPIA — Whether or not Washington state should expand background checks on gun sales and transfers has divided support within the law enforcement community, with some organizations choosing to not weigh in at all on two competing measures on the November ballot.
Initiative 594 is seeking universal background checks that would include sales from gun shows and private transactions, including most gifts and loans.
Initiative 591 would prevent any such expansion from occurring, prohibiting government agencies from conducting any checks beyond the national standard, which requires the checks for sales or transfers by licensed dealers but not for purchases from private sellers.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs has supported the policy idea of universal background checks in the past, including a bill that didn’t gain traction in the Legislature last year, but the group historically doesn’t weigh in on initiatives, said current executive director Mitch Barker, and the group is remaining neutral on the two measures before voters this year.
He said that the divide in law enforcement mirrors the varying individual opinions across the country around laws pertaining to firearms.
“It’s that balance between public safety and constitutional rights,” he said. “Within our profession, that’s where the disagreement comes in: What can we do that actually, positively impacts public safety around firearms?”
Only six states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Rhode Island — plus Washington, D.C., currently require universal background checks for all sales and transfers of all firearms, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Other states have varying laws on expansion beyond what federal law requires, including Washington state’s neighbor Oregon, which requires a background check for purchases of firearms at gun shows.
The Washington State Patrol is remaining neutral on the Washington state initiatives, as is the Seattle Police Department. The largest law enforcement group to weigh in on either side is the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, whose members include about 100 police unions and associations from across the state.
Officials from the group did not return phone or email messages seeking comment, but in a statement issued in June, the group expressed its support of I-591 and opposition to I-594, saying that “we, as law enforcement officers, do not believe that this will keep guns out of the hands of criminals or the mentally ill.”
The Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys is also remaining neutral, though individual county prosecutors in four counties in western Washington, including King, have signed on in support of I-594.
“Nobody says universal background checks are going to solve gun violence now and forever,” said King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg. “It’s one of the things that need to be done to make the community safer.”
The FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System processed more than 560,000 firearm background checks in Washington state last year, and has processed nearly 280,000 between January and the end of July of this year, according the agency’s online report.
Supporters of I-594 say private sales should be included among those checks.
“Someone selling a handgun from the trunk of their car or at a gun show should have to meet the same standard as a legitimate business that is licensed as a federal firearms dealer,” I-594 supporter Don Pierce, a former Bellingham police chief and the former executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, wrote in an email to The Associated Press.
William Burris, a spokesman for the Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association, which supports I-591, said that I-594 won’t stop people from skirting the law by going out of state to buy a gun, or from stealing a gun from someone else. Meanwhile, he said, the language concerning transfers and loans will confuse others.
I-594 defines a transfer as the delivery of a firearm “without consideration of payment or promise of payment including, but not limited to, gifts and loans.” It has several exemptions for the background check requirement, including gifts within family members, temporary transfers between spouses, and sale or transfer of antique guns.
“A lot of people will become violators of the law without knowledge they’re doing so,” said Burris, who had a nearly 32-year career with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.
Both I-594 and I-591 started as initiatives to the Legislature. Lawmakers held hearings on the measures earlier this year, but didn’t take action, sending the measures to voters.