Group points to police killings in support of I-594

SEATTLE — A group pushing an initiative that would require background checks for private gun sales in Washington state released a study Friday finding that many of the police deaths here since 1980 have come at the hands of people legally prohibited from having firearms.

Everytown for Gun Safety said it used FBI data and news stories to review the 32 killings. Four officers were shot with their own weapons. Of the remaining 28, at least 17 were killed by people likely prohibited from having firearms because of criminal histories, serious mental illness or past domestic violence, the report said.

The group isn’t suggesting that Initiative 594 would have prevented all of those deaths because some of the guns used had been stolen and it’s not clear how many of the shooters obtained the weapons.

But supporters said it could prevent some questionable transactions and make it more difficult for criminals to get guns. They pointed an earlier review of FBI data showing that the 16 states that require background checks for private gun sales have lower rates of police being killed by weapons that aren’t their own.

Under federal law, background checks through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System are required for purchasing firearms from licensed gun dealers, but not at gun shows or for private transactions. I-594 would require that such sales or other transfers be conducted at a licensed dealer, with background checks being conducted as if the licensed dealer were selling the weapon.

The measure includes exceptions for emergency gun transfers concerning personal safety, gifts between family members, antiques and loans for hunting. “For too long, prohibited purchasers — whether they be felons, domestic abusers or the seriously mentally ill — have been able to evade the background-check process by purchasing a gun either at a gun show or online from a private seller,” Don Pierce, a former Bellingham police chief, told reporters on a conference call. “This is a dangerous loophole in our law that puts all of us at risk, including law enforcement officers.”

Dave Workman, a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said there’s no evidence that the background checks would accomplish anything, and many in the firearms community oppose them as a step toward gun registration, which they view as government overreach.

“Where’s the information that a specific person acquired his gun through a means that might have been prevented with a background check?” Workman asked. “People who sell guns out of their trunks in parking lots at midnight aren’t going to be calling the NICS system, or going to a licensed gun shop that’s not going to be open anyway, because they know the person they’re selling to is a criminal.”

Of the 17 cases cited in the report where the killers obtained the weapons even though they weren’t supposed to, at least one appeared that it might conceivably have been prevented by a background check: that of Charles Ben Finch, who shot and killed his estranged wife’s blind friend in August 1994 and then murdered Snohomish County sheriff’s Sgt. James Kinard, who responded to the scene.

Finch bought his gun for $350 from a co-worker on the day of the killings, despite having prior convictions for manslaughter, rape and assault. He later committed suicide in jail.

A more recent case, the February 2012 killing of Washington State Patrol Trooper Tony Radulescu in Gorst, illustrated another aspect of the problem, I-594 supporters said. While it isn’t clear how shooter Joshua Blake obtained the weapon, it had been sold at a gun show in 2009 and subsequently went through at least two unlicensed transactions. Blake had prior convictions for assault, including an attack on his pregnant girlfriend.

“This case highlights how unlicensed transfers allow firearms to move from law-abiding owners into the criminal market,” campaign spokeswoman Kate Downen said in an email.

I-594 is one of two competing gun-sale measures voters will tackle in November. The other is Initiative 591, which would prevent Washington state from adopting background-check requirements more stringent than those in federal law.

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