Civil Liberties

Washington's Universal Gun Background Checks Kick In, Not That They Can Be Enforced


Israeli Defense Force

Last month, a majority of Washington state voters imposed background check requirements on firearms transfers between private parties. The i594 measure was hotly contested and its passage triggered vows of defiance, including plans for mass civil disobedience on December 13 at the state capitol. The law goes into effect Thursday, for what that's worth. Perhaps the biggest challenge to the measure is that authorities have little idea as to which state residents own what guns now. Without knowing where guns start out, it's essentially impossible to keep people from gifting, selling, loaning, or otherwise transferring them with little regard for the law.

Just when the law applies remains up in the air. Mitch Barker, executive director for the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, told the Associated Press that he doesn't think it would prevent somebody from just examining another person's gun, but he admits that part will have to be clarified. On the other hand, Dave Kopel, a prominent firearms expert and adjunct professor at the University of Denver's law school, thinks the plain language of the law does apply to simply holding somebody else's firearm.

Confusion over the law, in addition to contempt for its control freaky intent, is all the more reason to defy its requirements, especially since enforcing the background checks is a bit of a slog for authorities. The Associated Press, again, has Barker of the Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs on that point.

As for how to enforce the law, Barker said that's a bit trickier.

"If somebody committed a crime with a firearm, and if the source was tracked back to someone who didn't do a background check of the person who they transferred the gun to, that to me would seem to be the most likely scenario where a law-enforcement official would take action," he said.

If. That's a little world patching over a big hole in the law.

Despite the passage of i594, Washington doesn't have especially restrictive gun laws. In particular, it doesn't require licensing of guns or gun owners. Sales records from licensed dealers exist, but they're not updated to match people's movements from home to home, and in and out of the state. They also haven't accounted for private transfers, including kitchen counter sales, presents, inherited weapons, exchanges, and the like up until the passage of the new law. As of right now, who owns what firearms-wise is pretty much a mystery so far as the authorities are concerned. They might be able to pull up records of an initial sale, but they can't easily follow the trail from there to its current owner. Years from now, whether a gun was transferred before or after i594 took effect will generally be known only to the parties who participated.

So people who want to sell guns to friends, give them to coworkers, or loan them to neighbors have little incentive to subject themselves to the hassle and expense of a background check unless they really enjoy intrusive bureaucracy. Historically, that hasn't been the case, as peoplein the United States and around the world have gone to great lengths to arms themselves and remain that way, to the great discontent of government officials.

Washington residents illegally transferring guns might face some risk if a new owner commits a crime, but the authorities will still have to trace the gun's history and prove it was transferred after this Thursday to take any action.

Thousands of people say they will publicly defy universal background checks requirements on December 13. Maybe so. But more importantly, a great many people will be free to ignore the law every single day, and there's very little the supporters of i594 can do about it.