On Saturday morning, I found myself surrounded by knives, guns and ammo. Lots and lots of it.
I went with some friends to check out the first gun and knife show in Centralia since the roll-out of Initiative 594 on Dec. 4. The new law, passed overwhelmingly by a majority of voters, closes the “gun show loophole.” Under current federal law, background checks are required only for sales by licensed firearms dealers. I-594 expands those background checks to private transfers or sales, common to gun shows.
“Remember to dress Lewis County and not Seattle-USC,” my friend text messaged me beforehand. I think I blended in just fine, other than the fact I was one of only two people of color there. At the entrance of the venue, a huge sign read “NO LOADED GUNS.” Security guards at the entrance provided zip ties to help people lock guns they wanted to bring inside to trade.
Once inside, the whole thing felt like an indoor swap meet. The place had the festive mood of a holiday bazaar with a whole lot of camo colors. For about an hour, we perused aisles and aisles of rifles, shotguns, bullets, stun guns, handcrafted knives, holsters, jackets, war paraphernalia, National Rifle Association pamphlets on Second Amendment rights, and even dehydrated food for hunters. I could purchase an AR-15 assault-style rifle for $600. Or perhaps three gun cleaning kits for $90, as advertised in a sign that enticed buyers with this friendly reminder: “X-mas is coming! Best present ever! Will fit in man’s stocking!”
For the full experience, I went through a free background check after eying a $300 Winchester shotgun. Bremerton-based Palmer Ordnance was there to run the background checks using the federal database. I filled out a private-party transfer information sheet and a federal Firearms Transaction Record known as Form 4473. There was only one guy ahead of me but he had such a common name, it was taking a while to find him in the system. If your name is John Smith and a felon shares your name and birth date, it could cause delay. Eventually, the man was told something like he would have to wait as long as three business days for the background check to be completed before he could purchase the gun. The buyer shook his head, canceled the deal and walked away.
Then it was my turn. We had a slight problem. The vintage gun I was interested in purchasing did not have a serial number. Someone brought it over from the dealer’s table. No digits anywhere, but that didn’t stop the process. They started the check; I was cleared almost instantly. I suppose that’s one advantage to having an uncommon full name and a felony-free record.
To complete the trade, I would have to show the dealer this confirmation note:
There were certainly big dealers at the show, but most of the exhibitors appeared to be hobbyists and small-business owners. One seller from West Seattle did not need a license to set up a table. He was trying to help an elderly friend sell some of her late husband’s guns. It had taken two years for them to figure out the combination to his old safe. Inside, they found more than $4,000 worth of guns, including a vintage German Nazi pistol. If he could sell a few of those, he said, “it sure would help this widow get through a tough time.”
Another seller several rows over waved around a copy of the initiative as he tried to explain to a customer how taxes would be collected under the new law. He looked frustrated. (According to a non-partisan legislative analysis, retail sales tax does not apply to sales or transfers between two unlicensed people if they’ve complied with all background checks. A licensed dealer who facilitates the transfer of a firearm between unlicensed people “is not obligated” to collect a use tax.)
Some of the wording in the new law could be clarified. But from my experience, I just don’t view the concept of background checks as a huge burden. Of course, there are many others who adamantly disagree. On that same morning, just 25 miles away in Olympia, hundreds of gun-rights protesters met and openly exchanged their weapons in defiance of Initiative 594. (Read The Seattle Times’ news story.) The people in this crowd spoke as though gun-control supporters, including myself, are out to take away their right to bear any arms. That’s not true.
Back at the gun show in Centralia, I walked the Winchester back to the dealer, thanked him for letting me explore the screening process and pondered what had just happened. Technically, I was not supposed to handle the firearm at all until the background check was complete and the seller was notified, but the gun had no ammunition and I probably looked harmless. In any case, there was no way anyone there was going to enforce the rule.
I left the show with a pro-gun sticker, an old Vietnam War medal and a book. No gun.
My friend, who has been to these swap meets many times before, encouraged me to take one last look around. I saw law-abiding people, some of whom probably feel unfairly targeted by the provisions in I-594. They shouldn’t.
The new law will hopefully prevent sellers from inadvertently selling arms to people with bad intentions. And though some gun enthusiasts might be annoyed at the prospect of having to go through a background check and maybe waiting a few extra days to be cleared, state law does not prohibit responsible owners from purchasing weapons in Washington state.