On Wednesday, January 29, the Washington Senate Law & Justice Committee held a hearing on Initiative-594, that would, among other things, impose a general prohibition on the private transfer of firearms. During the hearing, State Senator Jeannie Darneille of Tacoma frankly revealed what lies behind much of the support for I-594 and other gun control measures across the country. As captured by a video of the hearing, the senator told those assembled, "I am not a person who handles guns. I don't own guns. I don't…they shock me, quite frankly. We're an open carry state and when I see people open carrying their guns, while it may be perfectly legal, it creates a visceral, personal, physical reaction in me as it does in other people…."
The senator's comments illustrate, perhaps more than she realized, the reflexive abhorrence certain politicians and other elites display toward firearms and those who own them. Their urge to restrict and ban firearms arises not just because they consider firearms dangerous but personally offensive and distasteful. A 2012 anti-gun messaging guide put together on behalf of gun control supporters by three consulting firms underscored this by telling activists: "Always focus on emotional and value-driven arguments about gun violence, not the political food fight in Washington or wonky statistics."
Rational observers of the I-594 debate will realize that "universal background check" proposals are incapable of delivering the benefits gun control supporters claim. First, in a number of recent high-profile shootings that led to calls for additional gun control, such as those that took place in Washington, D.C., Aurora, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., the perpetrators acquired guns following a background check. Persons intent on harm who cannot pass a background check, on the other hand, can easily evade the law through theft, straw purchases, and other illicit means of acquiring firearms.
Even some in favor of stricter gun controls have admitted that restricting private transfers will not stop the type of high-profile shootings that spur emotional calls for background check legislation. In a recent article for Homicide Studies, titled, Mass Shootings in America: Moving Beyond Newtown, Northeastern University Professor of Criminology James Alan Fox debunked the myth that "Enhanced background checks will keep dangerous weapons out of the hands of these madmen." Fox made clear, "Most mass murderers do not have criminal records or a history of psychiatric hospitalization... They would not be disqualified from purchasing their weapons legally." Moreover, "would-be mass killers can usually find an alternative way of securing the needed weaponry."
Far from preventing any violence, the only thing that I-594 would accomplish is the creation of a government record of all lawfully transferred firearms in Washington, which would facilitate their future confiscation. This scenario is even now occurring in New York City, where owners of certain types of semi-automatic rifles have been contacted by police, who knew where the weapons were because of registration requirements, and ordered to take the firearms outside the city or relinquish them. Another danger to Washington gun owners is illustrated by events already occurring in California, where firearm ownership records are being used in conjunction with legislation categorizing an ever-increasing group of people as too dangerous to own firearms, in order to carry out gun confiscations.
While the threat of these actions might currently seem remote in the Evergreen State, Washingtonians can be sure that those, like Senator Darneille, for whom firearms are shocking and repugnant, will view current legislative measures as merely a stepping stone to later confiscatory policies.