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Hundreds gather to protest I-594 background checks

OLYMPIA -- Gun rights protesters sing the
OLYMPIA -- Gun rights protesters sing the "Star Spangled Banner" at the start of a rally on the Capitol Campus against Initiative 594, which requires background checks for most gun purchases. (Jim Camden)

OLYMPIA — Hundreds of gun-rights advocates, some dressed in camouflage and a few wearing Santa hats, gathered on the Capitol grounds to denounce the background-check law voters approved last month.

A crowd estimated between 600 and 800 by the Washington State Patrol – and 1,000 to 2,000 by organizers – cheered as a string of speakers called Initiative 594 everything from as unenforceable to “a constitutional abomination.” Some carried rifles, others shotguns, still others pistols or other handguns. One had a sheathed broadsword.

They gathered in fog on the rain-soaked Capitol lawn. . .  

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. . . and over the course of about four hours trod some of the grass to mud. A few passed their firearms back and forth in an effort to violate the new law’s provision that requires a background check for a “transfer.” But their attempts at civil disobedience brought no arrests or citations.

“We’re going to let them do that,” Trooper Guy Gill of the State Patrol said. There was a difference of opinion during the recent initiative campaign whether such actions violate the law, and the sponsors of I-594 insisted they do not.

Geoff Potter, of the Washington Association for Gun Responsibility, said the rally was a chance for campaign rhetoric to meet reality. “No arrests were made because it was not a crime.”

One of the first speakers urged anyone handing a gun back and forth to exercise good gun safety practices, and Gill said both organizers and the patrol had safety as a primary goal. “These folks are responsible firearms owners,” he added.

They were also an eclectic mix of gun owners.

One protester who would only identify himself as Dylan from Issaquah, sat at a table in front of a rainbow-striped flag with the coiled rattlesnake and the message Don’t Tread on Me of the tea party-favored Gadsden Flag. He had decorated two rifles with rainbow duct tape, and had them available for anyone to pick up and pass back and forth in a “transfer. Other protesters came and passed their guns to him, including Danny Aguillon who had a nearby table where he was selling T-shirts that said “Fight I594”.

Dylan said he set up table to give people who didn’t bring a firearm to have a chance to break the law, and to represent gun owners who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. “We’re not all camoued out rednecks. We come from all walks of life.”

One protester in a red and white Santa hat, who gave his name simply as Richard from Clark County, was trying to violate the law by offering a rifle, an Interarms Mark X, for sale for $600 and not performing a background check on the buyer.

Richard bought the rifle from private seller about 15 years ago and it was just gathering dust, he said. He didn’t go through a background check when he bought it, so “why should I subject anyone else to that?” he asked.

But as the rally was wrapping up near the late afternoon, Richard said he’d had a few inquiries but no buyers, so he hadn’t had a chance to break the law.

I-594 passed with 59 percent approval but speakers said that was a result of some voters not understanding its provisions, some gun-rights supporters not voting and major gun-rights organizations fighting among themselves. Wealthy donors like Michael Bloomberg who backed the initiative were booed, as were gun control advocate Gabby Giffords, the former Arizona congresswoman shot while meeting with constituents, and Vice President Joe Biden, who once said people who want protection should get a shotgun, not a military-style semi-automatic weapon.

“It’s impossible to enforce this law,” said State Rep. Elizabeth Scott, a Republican from Monroe, Washington. “There are more of us than there are of them.”

She urged protesters to return to Olympia during the upcoming legislative session when more gun-control bills will be introduced, as will efforts to roll back some provisions of I-594 or completely repeal it: “It won’t go anywhere, but we’re going to try.”

Scott also read a message from Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, that said he couldn’t attend the rally but was with protesters in spirit and called gun control measures like I-594 a step toward government “taking our arms.”

Gavin Seim, a former Republican congressional candidate who organized the rally, said the right to bear arms is in the constitution and can’t be taken away by the Legislature or “by the collective, uninformed majority.” At the end of the rally he burned his concealed weapon permit, insisting the government didn’t have the authority to give him permission to exercise his rights, which extend beyond common firearms.

“If you want a tank in your front yard, then buy one. . . your house will be the safest on the block,” Seim said. “If you want to own a bazooka, own one.”

Potter, of the group that supported I-594, said the rally featured some “really extreme voices” against gun control, but contended the majority of Washington residents support the background check laws. Although organizers predicted it would draw thousands, the real turnout was in the hundreds, he said.

“We don’t see any energy either behind efforts to repeal 594 or to weaken gun laws,” Potter said.

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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