A Look at Guns in Washington State

Our collaboration with Crosscut.com explores gun stats and what's on the line come Nov. 4

On the fall ballot, Washington residents will be asked to vote on two opposing gun control initiatives—one calling for expanded background checks, the other keeping the current system of background checks in place. These are two of only three statewide gun control measures on November ballots anywhere in the country. Alabama voters will be asked to weigh in on an amendment to that state’s constitution protecting the right to bear arms.Guns, of course, are no small concern: As we went to press on this story, a young girl narrowly missed a bullet in a drive-by shooting in West Seattle, a man was carjacked at gunpoint in Golden Gardens Park, and two men were shot and killed at a gas station in Kent—all within 48 hours. Not to mention the shooting at Seattle Pacific University in June and the ongoing gun violence that disproportionately affects South Seattle.

In late August, the initiative campaigns were heating up and big money was starting to pour in, especially on the side of expanded background checks. But it was still too early in the process to predict how the vote will go, especially since the big advertising push is expected to come after Labor Day. In anticipation of the vote, we step back and present a picture of guns in Washington state: how they are regulated, who is affected by gun violence, what a bullet does to the body—and, in a personal essay, what a gun does to a relationship.

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While the two background-check measures effectively cancel each other out, they could both pass. (In fact, in a July Elway Poll, 32 percent of respondents said they would be likely to vote for both measures.) The case of dual victories would have to be settled in court or by legislative action.

Initiative Measure No. 594 would expand required background checks to include those purchasing a gun in the state of Washington, even those who are doing so via private sales. Exemptions include gifts between immediate family members.
The pitch: Background checks are the easiest and most effective way to reduce access to guns for criminals, domestic abusers and other dangerous people.
Sponsor: Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility
Signature supporters: Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and his wife, Leslie; Paul Allen; Bill and Melinda Gates
War chest in late-August: $6 million
Early support (according to a midsummer poll): 70 percent

Initiative Measure No. 591 would make it illegal for the state to impose any background checks whatsoever unless they are already national law.
The pitch: Prevent the government from confiscating firearms without due process.
Big supporters: Protect Our Gun Rights coalition
Signature supporters: National Rifle Association of America Washingtonians Opposed to I-594; Alan Gottlieb, chair of Protect Our Gun Rights and board member of Washington Arms Collectors
War chest in late-August: More than $1 million
Early support (according to a midsummer poll): 46 percent

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Gun violence in Seattle is concentrated in the South End. The monthly rate of assaults and robberies involving guns was about 1.6 times greater there than the rate in the next closest precinct, and the majority of drive-by shootings—by a ratio of more than 3 to 1—take place here.

Washington state ranked 34th for firearm death rates in 2011.

In King County, more people die every year from gun violence than from motor vehicle collisions.

Using free, easily available software, anyone with a decent 3-D printer can create a fully functional handgun made of plastic; this technology could make background checks irrelevant.

451,000 people have concealed-carry permits in Washington state. The number of residents receiving a permit tripled between 2005 and 2012, according to The Seattle Times. The growth has been particularly great among women, whose ranks surged twice as fast as men since 2011.

How are guns regulated in the state?
Washington’s current gun laws hew closely to federal law, which is the national minimum.

The state does require background checks for gun purchases from state-licensed dealers and imposes a background check on dealer employers. The state also requires law enforcement to issue a concealed handgun license to any applicant who meets certain basic qualifications.

State law does not require a background check on firearms transferred between private parties, firearm owners to be licensed or to register firearms, or a mandatory waiting period on firearms purchases. The state also does not limit the number of firearms that can be purchased at one time.

Recent regulations: Last year, the Washington Legislature created a gun offender registry, and, earlier this year, Olympia unanimously passed a law allowing law enforcement to confiscate guns in domestic violence situations.