Legislature nears deal on gun background checks

OLYMPIA — Washington lawmakers are beginning to coalesce around a plan that would expand the state’s laws on gun background checks, providing hope for supporters after years of failed efforts.

Gun measures have flooded the Legislature this year, with some lawmakers proposing that teachers have the ability to carry firearms and others looking to add new fees to gun transactions. The universal background checks plan, however, has emerged as the most surprising proposal that has bipartisan support.

Ralph Fascitelli, who leads the gun control group Washington Ceasefire, said the organization didn’t believe earlier this year that the idea had a chance of passing the Legislature. That has changed in just the last couple weeks.

“We are increasingly optimistic,” Fascitelli said.

While the measure is supported by many Democrats, the background checks plan also picked up support from Republican Rep. Mike Hope of Lake Stevens, Republican Sen. Steve Litzow of Mercer Island and Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom, a Democrat who has aligned himself with Republicans this year. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs also supports the idea.

Background checks are already required when purchases are made at federally licensed gun shops. The bill would expand that requirement to sales between private parties.

Litzow said the bill would do nothing to prevent law-abiding citizens from owning guns.

“It’s a common-sense approach to making sure that those who shouldn’t own a gun aren’t purchasing a gun,” Litzow said.

Litzow said he also thinks there is broader support for efforts to change the mental health system, such as making sure there are counselors in schools and increasing capacity so that people can help get loved ones the care they need. Litzow also supports an effort to create penalties for people when children get their accessible guns and injure themselves or others.

The background checks bill is first getting a hearing in the state House next week.

Hope, a Seattle police officer, said the private transactions are occurring all the time and are attractive for criminals who can avoid a background check. He noted that when his employer recently held a gun buyback program, some people were on the streets buying weapons from people who were waiting in line.

“That’s exactly what we want to go after. We don’t know who’s buying the gun,” Hope said.

Don Pierce, legislative director at the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said curbing violence is only going to be accomplished through a combination of proposals and that the background checks are part of that.

“Part of the solution is to keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally ill,” Pierce said.

Hope said he expects the bill will pass the House. A spokeswoman for Gov. Jay Inslee said the office hasn’t examined the specific language of the background check proposal but is supportive of the idea.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to the bill would come in the state Senate, where the bill has been assigned to a committee dominated by pro-gun lawmakers. Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, expressed skepticism of whether the background check proposal would help, arguing that the state needs to focus instead on treating the mentally ill. She said she opposes bills that would limit the rights of gun users, such as an assault weapons ban or a limit on magazine capacity.

“You can be in the House and can be supporting some of the bills that will take our freedoms away, but they will die in the Washington state Senate,” Roach said.

Fascitelli, the gun control proponent, said he’s not very confident the bill would make it out of committee, either. But he’s hopeful the Senate will be able to bypass that process and bring the measure straight to the floor.

Litzow said he hasn’t yet discussed the gun bill with members of the Senate committee. He wasn’t sure about the idea of bypassing the panel.

“I don’t think that’s necessary at this point,” Litzow said.

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