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Shawn Vestal: Gun-show promoter’s changing story part of the ‘everybody knows’ problem

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

A year ago, as Washington’s new background check law had barely taken effect, the organizer of a Spokane gun show committed an unpardonable sin.

He said the law had worked.

Paul Snider, a 78-year-old gun-show promoter from Lewiston, told a reporter in December 2014 that in his first experience organizing background checks for gun purchases under Initiative 594 at a show at the Spokane County fairgrounds, a firearm sale had been blocked. A man wanted on an arrest warrant had tried, and failed, to buy a rifle.

Snider, who was not a supporter of the new law, said, “it did work in this case.”

The Associated Press picked up the story. It ran around the state, and then the nation. Snider was mocked and vilified in the online chambers of gun zealotry.

In online gun forums, posters immediately concluded it was “likely a made-up story,” or “highly suspicious,” or simply “BS.” They referred to Snider as an idiot or suggested that he probably never even said it, because the lying jackals of the news media simply made it up.

Others went further. Is it really all that big a deal to sell a gun to someone facing an arrest warrant? Who cares, right? What if a fugitive needs to shoot a tyrant? “Depending on what he was accused of,” one wise soul wrote, “I’m not sure it is a good thing he got caught. … this could easily be a law abiding citizen getting jerked around.”

Another added, “A warrant for what? Murder? Or unpaid traffic fines? … We have no way of knowing if that rifle would have ever been used in a crime, and impairing the rights of millions of gun owners is NO justification for the results.”

Faced with such arguments, Snider became convinced he was wrong. I called him this week, interested in hearing what his first year running gun shows under I-594 has been like, and was surprised to hear him completely and unequivocally recant his earlier comments.

“I was wrong,” Snider said this week. “I was 100 percent wrong. I caught all kinds of flak about that.”

Now, stick with me here, because it does not appear that Snider was wrong at all. And I think that tells us something about facts and faith in our gun debate.

A variety of sources, including one with first-hand knowledge of the transaction, say the original version of the story is correct: A private sale of a rifle was rejected at the gun show and the reason was the potential buyer was wanted on an arrest warrant.

Still, Snider’s year of catching flak led him to change his mind. He said he had made his original comments based on having heard something vague about a gun-sale rejection, and then having heard the same thing from a reporter that he simply assumed was true, and that he’s come to believe he was mistaken.

Still, “I know it didn’t happen,” he told me in a second interview this week, when I told him that other sources maintain that it did.

Snider has re-entered the realm where most of us live when it comes to guns – the realm of what “everybody knows.” The guns-everywhere crowd believes many things that “everybody knows” – criminals never submit to background checks, the background check system is so flawed that any rejection is suspicious, and passing a background check (which Snider estimates takes three to five minutes at his shows) is an unbearable affront and insult to the rights of upstanding gun owners. The biggest “everyone knows” among this crowd is simple: People who say they want gun safety really want gun confiscation. Confiscation paranoia is unshakable – they’re coming to take your guns.

Those of us who support gun regulations have our own range of “everybody knows” beliefs – including a possibly oversized faith in the effectiveness of modest measures in the face of an enormous problem that too many people simply don’t recognize.

Newtown proved it. Collectively, we just don’t mind gun violence all that much.

That single rejected sale last year is not of much import in the grand scheme of things, at a time when there are already more guns than people in the nation and gun sales are reaching record highs. Opponents of the law have said that because there have been no reported prosecutions or arrests under the law, it’s ineffective. It seems quite likely that many private buyers and sellers are simply ignoring the law, and Gov. Jay Inslee wants to take steps to make it work better.

But it’s worth asking a very simple question: Has it prevented the sale of guns to people who should not have them?

It has. National Instant Criminal Background Check System statistics for 2015 show that 5,466 background checks were conducted for private sales in Washington from March to December. Of those, 102 sales were not approved and returned to the seller.

A hundred people who weren’t supposed to own guns were not allowed to buy guns, at least at one point of sale. It’s not many, but it’s not nothing. Snider, who says he was wrong about the law, was actually right. It worked.

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