Should anyone wishing to purchase a handgun or other firearm have to submit to a background check, whether it is a private or commercial sale? The fact is all commercial sales require this already. All the larger gun shows require that you be a member of the sponsoring organization to make a purchase of a firearm- and membership requires a background check. I am told there are gun shows in this state that do not require this, but certainly most the larger shows in western Washington do.
But a private citizen can contact another private citizen and purchase a firearm with no formality at all. This could and perhaps does allow people not legally allowed to own a firearm to obtain them. Mind you I haven’t seen any documentation of this but I have no difficulty believing that it happens. If I were a criminal and wanted to obtain a firearm illegally that’s certainly what I’d do- pose as a respectable, law-abiding citizen and purchase one privately.
This fall we are waiting to see if a citizen’s Initiative requiring background checks for all transfers of firearms will be required by law. While I see the value of such a law I did not vote for it. Why? Because the law was badly written in my opinion, but more importantly because I disagree with the Initiative process. We hire (elect) people to represent our interests in government. I do not believe that we should usurp their prerogatives by taking that process into our own hands. If they are not willing to enact the laws that we feel are needed then we can elect someone else next time around. If enough of our fellow citizens agree with us we can effect change. In theory at least.
That’s all as may be- but what about background checks for every transfer of possession? What it comes to is this- we want to keep guns out of the hands of people who are not legally entitled to own them. As adults I am pretty sure that we can all agree on that. So will universal background checks accomplish that? People get their hands on illegal drugs easily enough. Make no mistake, this is not an argument against trying, just a reminder that we’re not going to enjoy complete success no matter what we do. Criminals will get their hands on guns if they want them badly enough; universal background checks just put another hurdle in their way. That hurdle may stop the less motivated but make no mistake the really serious criminals will still get their hands on them.
Let’s face it- a gun is an inanimate object; a tool. It is without volition and is incapable of independent action. A gun is perfectly safe until you inject human beings into the equation, which means that this is a human problem, not a gun problem. Until or unless we address the human side of the equation all we are doing is slapping on band-aids and taking placebos.
The Supreme Court has established that law-abiding citizens have the Constitutional right to own firearms ‘for all lawful purposes’ including self-defense. It also cautioned that this right is ‘subject to regulation for the public good.’ But like it or not firearms ownership is a right, not a privilege. Like all rights it also carries responsibilities. So let’s approach the problem as a human problem, and an issue of the responsibilities that go with the right.
What if we held people accountable for how they distribute firearms? Institute consequences for failing to exercise ‘due diligence’ when transferring possession of a firearm. What would constitute due diligence?
If I know someone personally and have every reason to believe that they are a law-abiding citizen, with no pressing reasons to believe that transferring a firearm to them will unduly endanger innocent persons that should be enough. But what if I don’t know someone, transfer a firearm to them, they are not legally entitled to own a firearm, and they subsequently commit a crime with that weapon? Is this morally any different from selling a car to an alcoholic with a suspended license? People seem to think so, to the point that they want to pass laws. OK then, what would constitute ‘due diligence’ in transferring a firearm to an unknown person? There are any number of mechanisms that should normally be considered a sufficient exercise of ‘due diligence’.
It’s very easy to get a carry permit in this state. Pay a fee, go through a background check and it’s yours. The state has no discretion; if you qualify for a permit they must issue one if you pass the background check. Likewise the Washington Arms Collectors Association requires a background check for membership, and to purchase any sort of firearm at one of their shows. Verifying that a person has a permit or is a member of WAC seems like ‘due diligence’ on the part of a private seller.
Another option is to place the item for sale on consignment in a gun shop; this is what we usually do. Then it falls under all of the same regulations that a normal firearms purchase from a licensed dealer does.
Rather than requiring a background check simply require that people be responsible, exercise due diligence and institute and enforce penalties for when a failure to do so results in avoidable harm. People will get the message eventually.