Everyone on both sides of the gun debate will be watching the vote in Washington State on I-594, which would expand background checks to nearly all private transfers of guns. Like most states, Washington does not require a background check for transfers between individuals, only transfers conducted by federally-licensed dealers tied into the FBI-NICS system. The issue has become an early test of the strength of Mike Bloomberg's recently-announced strategy to promote gun-control initiatives at the state, rather than the federal, level. Hence, media interest has been intense.
As part of the pre-election game plan, Bloomberg's group Everytown just rolled out a new report, "Online and Off the Record," which documents the ability of disqualified individuals to circumvent background checks by purchasing guns listed for private sale on websites like armslist.com. Armslist is kind of like a Craigslist for gun sales (Craigslist doesn't permit sales of firearms) and its ads distinguish between sellers who are licensed dealers as opposed to private individuals just wanting to get rid of some guns. Since private transfers in Washington State do not require approval from the NICS system, this means that any gun sold privately on this and other website might potentially wind up in the wrong hands.
The report argues that as many as 4,500 guns are purchased each year by individuals who would not be able to acquire a weapon if they had to submit to a background check. The report then details an example in which an individual convicted of multiple felonies, including domestic violence assault and assault and battery of a police officer, posted a message on Armslist stating that he wanted to buy a certain kind of gun. Although it was not possible to determine whether this particular person proceeded to acquire a weapon, there was nothing that would have necessarily prevented him from making contact with a seller and getting his hands on a gun.
This is hardly the first time that Bloomberg's folks have issued a report showing the connection between gun violence and unregulated gun transfers. In 2010 the Mayor's Group issued "Trace The Guns" which showed the alarming number of guns originally purchased in southern states that ended up in northern cities like New York. This report not only focused attention on the interstate movement of unregulated guns, but also heightened concerns about "straw sales" in which a qualified buyer would purchase guns from a dealer, pass a background check but then give or sell the guns to someone else. To the extent that I-594 in Washington embodies legal constraints on private gun transactions of all kinds, this effort could become something of a template for extending state-level gun controls into other states as well.
Ironically, the vote is not only a test of Bloomberg's strategy, but also puts him up against one of the gun lobby's chief supporters, Alan Gottlieb, whose 2nd Amendment Foundation is headquartered in Bellevue, WA from where he organizes and directs mail-order campaigns, lawsuits and other activities to spread the gospel of the gun. To counter I-594, Gottlieb filed his own ballot initiative, I-591, which prohibits any expansion of background checks in Washington unless a national expansion takes place which the state would be required to join.
I don't necessarily see a connection between what gun-control activists really hope to achieve and the expansion of background checks to cover all private transactions of guns. Why bother expanding background checks to rifles and shotguns when they are rarely used in acts of violence or other types of crimes? Know what you get by requiring long gun transfers through NICS? A bunch of pissed-off rifle and shotgun owners who might otherwise support background checks where it really counts; i.e., keeping handguns out of the wrong hands.