By Stephan Yhann
The debate over gun control came to Washington’s capitol Tuesday, where supporters and opponents of universal background checks traded rhetorical warning shots in public testimony before the House Judiciary Committee.
At issue was I-594, which attempts to prevent convicted criminals and mentally ill people from acquiring firearms by requiring a background check for any sale or transfer of a firearm that occurs within Washington State.
Supporters argued that, while the legislation will not end gun violence, it does have the potential to reduce it and prevent mass shootings.
Echoing that sentiment were former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords (D, Ariz.) and her husband, Capt. Mark Kelly. Giffords. The congresswoman, who was shot in the head in a January 2010 constituent meeting in Tuscon, has become a national leader in the gun control debate, co-founding Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group that advocates for universal background checks nationwide.
Kelly spoke for most of the couple’s time, describing the proposal as time-sensitive and calling on legislators to pass it.
“We’ve been watching and reading about the work being done here in Washington,” Kelly said. “It’s too dangerous to wait.”
Kelly told legislators that while Arizona and Washington both share a proud tradition of hunting and gun ownership, the mass shooting that injured his wife and the shootings at Cafe Racer in 2012 and the Jewish Federation of Seattle in 2009 show that action must be taken to prevent dangerous people from getting access to firearms.
“When dangerous people get guns, we are all vulnerable,” Kelly said. “At the movies, at church, conducting our everyday business and – time after time – at a school, on our campuses, in our children’s classrooms.”
Giffords spoke briefly, calling on the committee to unite behind the measure.
“Now is the time to come together,” she said. “Democrats, Republicans, everyone – be bold, be courageous. The nation is counting on you.”
Opponents of the bill expressed sympathy for Giffords, but wasted no time attacking the legislation.
“Our hearts go out to Gabrielle Giffords and Cheryl Stumbo; may they continue to recover” said Brian Judy, a National Rifle Association liaison, referring to the initiative’s prime sponsor who survived the Jewish Federation shootings. “Nobody should have to experience what they have: unspeakable evil. But along with the empathy I feel for these victims, I feel disappointed that these tragedies would be exploited to push such a far-reaching anti-gun agenda.”
Noting that Giffords’ and Stumbo’s shooters obtained their firearms after passing a background check, Judy described the legislation as a first step towards “universal handgun registration” and the creation of “a massive government database of law-abiding handgun owners.”
“The people of Washington should ask, ‘Why does a small group of billionaires who are bankrolling 594 want a government database of law-abiding handgun owners?’” he said, referencing I-594 donors.
Gov. Jay Inslee disagreed with that characterization.
“I think this is a common sense measure that closes the gun show loophole – that’s its principal action,” the governor said in a short interview. “I don’t believe there is anything in there that is not consistent with public safety and the constitution.”
I-594 is an initiative to the legislature, meaning the House and Senate will have the option of passing, rejecting, doing nothing or sending both the original initiative and an alternate option to the voters. Under Washington initiative processes, if the legislature fails to pass the measure for any reason, it will go directly to voters in November’s election.
Despite the heated debate, advocates on both sides don’t expect it to gain much traction in the legislature.
“I’d like [the state legislature] to pass it,” Gov. Inslee said, before declining to predict the legislation’s fate. “I’ll let expectations fall to others.”
State Senator Jamie Pedersen of Seattle, who led last year’s failed effort to pass similar legislation in the state House, was supportive of the measure, but said that he doesn’t expect either chamber to take action on the bill. Rather, he predicted that voters would ultimately decide the proposal’s fate.
“Speaker [Frank] Chopp and I both signed the petition to put it on the ballot,” Pedersen said, “and I hope to vote for it on the ballot this November.”