I-594: Vote “No” On A Gun Initiative With Too Wide A Net

This is the second in a series of posts covering the two Washington State gun initiatives to be decided by voters this November. The first post addressing I-591, which prohibits gun confiscation without due process and prohibits state background checks without a “uniform national standard”, can be found here.

In this first of three posts regarding I-594, I examine the broader implications of the initiative, which, stated simply, call for near universal background checks on all gun sales and transfers. Later this week, additional posts will address the “gun show loophole” and philosophy of gun ownership.

Whenever the occasion arises whereby voters are asked to consider simultaneously two initiatives which are inherently adversarial with respect to the other, it’s a useful–if not amusing–exercise to observe just how many sections or provisions it requires for each to achieve their goals.

Generally, one can be reasonably confident that a shorter bill isn’t likely to erect a patently intrusive apparatus upon those its addressed towards, while on the other side of the spectrum, it’s also reasonable to assume that longer bills will tend to be both more complex and facilitate greater government encroachment into civic life. Think the difference between Cat In The Hat and The Iliad.

Such is the case of Washington State’s competing gun initiatives, I-591 and I-594. Where I-591 requires only a single page and two operative sections to make its point, I-594 takes 18 pages and 11 sections to establish near “universal” background checks on all gun sales and transfers with few, albeit convoluted, exemptions. A quick thought experiment: if one were presented with both initiatives, though without foreknowledge of their contents, which at face value would seem the more respectable of the two, given our tradition of seeking a small, unobtrusive government that leaves us to our affairs?

The old axiom goes that “he who controls the language, controls the argument,” and advocates of tighter gun regulations have wielded that principle with regards to I-594 and with it, have produced a subtle slight of hand. Television ads running in the state in favor of I-594 primarily brand the initiative as one intent upon curbing the ability of criminals to exploit “loopholes” created by gun shows and private sellers by requiring background checks on these sales. And while this is certainly a consequence of the initiative, the actual text of the law makes it plain that I-594, while making provision for gun sales, spends most of its 18 pages establishing regulations pertaining to gun transfers, defined as the:

“intended delivery of a firearm to another person without consideration of payment or promise of payment including, but not limited to, gifts and loans.”

Which, excepting a number of convoluted exemptions, constitutes a huge interjection of government influence into a gun culture that features many such gun transfers that don’t involve money or ownership changing hands. Whether by design or suspicious coincidence, the advocacy surrounding I-594 has been careful to focus solely on the gun sales–an aspect that appears reasonable at first glance–while roundly failing to acknowledge that it is bound to ensnare the lion’s share of previously lawful transfers as well.

Section 3 establishes the circumstances and method by which a background check must be conducted on a gun transfer, as well as exemptions to that requirement. Unlicensed persons are unable to transfer guns without seeking a licensed firearm dealer to facilitate a background check. The transferor must deliver the gun to a dealer, whereupon the purchaser must “complete, sign, and submit all federal, state, and local forms necessary to process the required background check to the licensed dealer conducting the background check,” as if he or she were purchasing the gun from the dealer. At this point, the dealer may charge a “fair market value” for the check that reflects the costs and efforts incurred. This requirement applies to all non-exempt firearm transactions.

This section also provides exemptions to the background check rule, and as eluded to before, they are Byzantine to say the least:

  • Transfers to immediate family members (as defined) are exempt, but by a plain reading of the law, only as “a bona fide gift”, and therein lies further evidence of the specious nature of this law. If I wanted to make a “bona fide gift” to a family member of one of my firearms, such a transfer would be exempt from a background check, but if I wished to sell or loan it, I would be unable to do so directly without breaking the law. This is not semantics or taking liberties with the text. I can gift a gun, but can’t sell it or loan it to the same person.
  • Antiques (as defined) are exempt.
  • Temporary transfers to prevent imminent danger are exempt, but only as long “as immediately necessary” to prevent such danger.
  • Law enforcement and corrections agencies, and their officials, are exempt, within the scope of their official duties. Off duty persons and their firearms are subject to background checks.
  • Federally licensed gunsmiths for the sole purpose of service and repair are exempt.
  • Temporary transfers between spouses/domestic partners, if they occur exclusively at shooting ranges, shooting competitions, or for hunting. A plain reading provides no temporary transfer exemption for any other relatives or friends.

There are two crucial points to be made in regards to this section. In a plain reading, there is no language regarding duration of a transfer. In other words, no matter how temporary a non-exempt transfer may be, they must be accompanied by a background check. Additionally, there isn’t any language regarding the direction of a transfer, either. Taken in sum, if a gun owner wished to hand a gun to a friend to examine, even in his or her own home, no matter how short the period of time, they would be unable to do so without running afoul of this law. Upon returning the gun to its owner–and I wish I was making this up–another background check would be required. No provision of this chapter states this is not necessary.

Knowingly violating section 3 is a gross misdemeanor. If previously found guilty of violating section 3, the penalty rises to a Class C felony, with each violation carrying a separate charge. In light of the amount of pedestrian gun transfers various and sundry that occur every day right now, section 3 is a nakedly massive and burdensome provision.

Given the necessary detail that a purchaser must provide under section 5 to the state department of licensing to obtain a handgun, anti-594 advocates have suggested that it constitutes a state registry of handgun owners. There isn’t any language openly establishing such, or any outward indication that it is indeed inevitable in the future. What is clear is that in order for the state to handle what would surely be a huge influx of background check requests, I-594 all but dictates not only that Department of Licensing bureaucracy expand, but also that state law enforcement spend more time injecting themselves into private activity that otherwise would be quite unremarkable.

New state handgun registry or no, government and it’s attendant bureaucracy would necessarily balloon, and no populace prizing unobtrusive government ought be comfortable expanding the reach of alphabet soup commissars. I-594 does that, by inviting government right through one’s front door and criminalizing mundane gun transfers that are not its business to meddle in.

No one wants a criminal to obtain a firearm. But it is not acceptable in seeking to prevent this to cast so wide a net that the law-abiding are ensnared among them. Civil life unmolested by capricious state power shrinks by the year, and if the law-abiding wish to allow someone to handle a firearm in the privacy of their own home or otherwise, the State shouldn’t have anything to say about that.

Vote “No” on I-594.


About Michael Haugen

Michael Haugen is a full-spectrum conservative and recent graduate from Eastern Washington University (BS Biology). His main interests in politics and public policy center around health care, education and tax reform. He'll be returning to EWU in 2014 to complete a Master's degree in Public Administration. Follow him on Twitter: @HaugenTRA

2 Responses to “I-594: Vote “No” On A Gun Initiative With Too Wide A Net”

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  1. I-594: Background Check “Loopholes”? Much Ado About Nothing | The Right Argument - October 15, 2014

    […] reading of I-594 reveals that it bites off quite a bit more than simple restriction of gun sales, as I’ve pointed out earlier, but for the purpose of the present exercise, we’ll focus on the supposed […]

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