I-594 Worries Gun Show Dealers
There are dueling gun initiatives on the Washington state ballot this November. Initiative 594 would require background checks for all private gun sales. Initiative 591 would prohibit background checks unless mandated by the federal government.
Reporter Ryan Katz takes us inside a place where many guns are privately bought, sold and traded: A gun show.
When you arrive at the Wes Knodel Gun and Knife Show, the first thing you do is go through security. The man at the door is usually Wes Knodel himself, the show’s promoter. Knodel and his security team zip-tie the trigger of every gun that comes in.
Knodel: That’s our number one thing here is safety - make sure they’re not loaded and then tie them to where they can’t operate so somebody couldn’t pick one up off a table and pull the trigger and it it’ll go off.
Inside, people walk through the aisles browsing the tables, most are filled with guns, ammunition, even jewelry. Guns and ammo aren’t allowed on the same table by the way.
A garlic festival is going on next door, and a couple of customers carry their firearm in one hand and a bag of garlic in the other. One thing you notice here, there’s a lot of bartering that goes on. Individuals carry their firearms through the aisles, looking to sell or trade them.
Next to the show’s entrance is a table filled with antique firearms and parts. Sitting behind it in a plastic chair is George Brewholmes, a retired carpenter from Seattle. He’s been buying and selling antique firearms since he was eight.
Brewholmes: The way I do it is I live in Seattle, so I come here, go to the gun show then go down to Portland to see my brother. The wife’s happy I’m gone for a few days.
For George, selling guns is a hobby. He talks about guns like a kid brags about his Legos or toy cars. But this means he isn’t a licensed dealer – he’s a private seller. And Initiative 594 will affect private sellers like George the most
Brewholmes: For me, if I can sell a few things to cover the gas to get here and my table, I’m happy. I’m really happy if someone brings a gun and shows me a gun I haven’t seen before, that’s cool.
If Initiative 594 passes, George will have to go through a licensed dealer to process the background check. But he says he applies his own background check: intuition.
Brewholmes: If a guy’s an obvious gangbanger, I won’t sell to him. Let’s face it, if his face is all covered with tattoos and he’s got tears under one eye, he’s an idiot. He shouldn’t have a firearm.
This may seem subjective for some, but George doesn’t really see another option.
Brewholmes: Well, what are you going to do? If you’re doing the background check, the guy just gets someone else to buy it for him. Do a straw buy. That’s not going to stop. And he’s not going to come here to buy the gun in the first place.
This is a classic argument made by a lot of firearm sellers: most criminals do not buy guns at gun shows.
Dr. Garen Wintemute: Only a small percentage of gun sales without background checks occur at gun shows.
Dr. Garen Wintemute is an emergency physician and Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis. He points to a 2002 study by the U.S. Department of Justice. It looked at 200,000 state prisoners who used a gun during a crime. Less than 1 percent bought it at a gun show.
Wintemute: Gun shows are not where the problem is the greatest, it’s the most visible. Washington is not considering a gun show only measure, if they were I’d be opposed to it. They’re considering something much more comprehensive.
The same survey concluded that nearly 80 percent of prisoners got their guns on the street or from a friend. So Dr. Wintemute agrees with private sellers like George Brewholmes that gun shows aren’t the biggest problem. But although they might agree, they come to very different conclusions on what should be done about it. Wes Knodel thinks that this means background checks don’t work at all, like in his home state of Oregon.
Knodel: But as far as enacting a mandatory background check for private individuals in Oregon, it has done nothing to lower crime. Period. Other than to create a minor inconvenience for law-abiding citizens.
Dr. Wintemute concedes that evidence on the effectiveness of background checks has been mixed.
Wintemute: That’s been hard to establish comprehensively, a group of us is actually working on that right now.
Maybe the best example of the impact of background checks comes from Missouri, which had background checks, and then did away with them.
Wintemute: In Missouri after they got rid of comprehensive background checks, specifically firearm homicides went up about 20%, there wasn’t any increase in homicide by other means.
In other words, Dr. Wintemute says, although gun shows aren’t the biggest problem, we do have some evidence that background checks work.
Wintemute: I have gone to something like 75 gun shows all around the country. In states that have background check laws, you just don’t see people making sales off the books. I saw one in dozens of gun shows.
And as for George Brewholmes? If Initiative 594 passes, he’ll still come to gun shows, but thinks that others probably won’t.
George Brewholmes: We’ll just do the paperwork probably. A lot of guys will quit. The guys that it’ll hurt will be the guy running the show here, ‘cause a lot of people will stop.
Gun show promoter Wes Knodel thinks that his business will go down by about 20% if Initiative 594 passes. He supports the other initiative, 591. If that passes, the state could not conduct background checks unless the federal government says so. And if Washington votes for more and less background checks in the same election, it’s not clear what will happen.