With the Newtown tragedy putting pressure on legislators to do something about gun violence, state Rep. Jamie Pedersen (D-43, Seattle), chair of the house Judiciary Committee, introduced a gun control bill this week—closing the gun show loophole—that not only Republicans, but also to his own caucus, considered untouchable in previous sessions. Case in point: Rep. Frank Chopp (D-43, Seattle), the speaker of the house and Pedersen's liberal colleague from the 43rd District consistently blocked efforts over the years to put new regulations on guns. Chopp has previously cited a definitive letter he received from more than half of the members of his own caucus in 2008 saying they would not support gun control measures.
Even as the session began, with Newtown in the headlines, Pedersen said there was no chance to pass legislation to close the loophole. But after some "quiet conversations" with his colleagues—and getting flooded with emails—Pedersen, along with Democratic colleagues in the Senate, decided to go for it.
However, Pedersen's agenda also includes a bill to require involuntary commitment for some people who commit violent crimes that has liberals—particularly advocates at the ACLU—upset.
I talked with Pedersen on Thursday about his controversial bills, their chance for passing this session and what it’s like working with the new MCC leadership in the Senate.
When I reminded Pedersen that bills to require greater protections on gun control have been unsuccessful in the past, Pedersen said things are different this year. “There’s just a general sense that we do not have an adequate legal framework in place to protect the public from gun violence.”
Specifically, Pedersen proposed bill, which has 36 co-sponsors, some of whom are Republicans—would require anyone purchasing a gun must pass a background check that looks at violent felony convictions as well as involuntary commitments of 14 days or more.
“Under federal and state law, there’s no requirement to do a background check on a purchaser other than if they’re buying from a licensed dealer,” Pedersen says. That means anyone can buy a gun off Craigslist, at a gun show or on the street without a background check – and Pedersen says that’s dangerous.
The Republicans aren't Pedersen's only nemesis in his fight to pass gun control measures. The ACLU is against another Pedersen measure. “I don’t think anybody thinks that universal background checks would have prevented Newtown or Columbine. We have 300 million guns in this country – there is no law that can stop something like that from happening.” But he says this bill could reduce gun violence by reducing the number of guns that get into the wrong hands. More directly, he says a universal background check bill could prevent the impromptu gun market that started in Seattle streets last weekend at the gun buyback event.
As to whether he can get the bill through the Democratic controlled House and MCC controlled Senate, he says: “I’m not a big fan generally of doing things that are clearly impossible… There is a real possibility of finding common ground and I would expect that.”
He floated the idea to Sen. Mike Padden (R-4, Spokane Valley), Republican chairman of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “I’d describe his reaction as cool, but he didn’t say absolutely not. To some degree, this is how things unfold down here.” Pedersen says he doesn’t know whether Padden will give the bill a hearing in the Senate. If he doesn’t “there are procedural options for a floor majority to bring it up for a vote.”
The Republicans aren't Pedersen's only nemesis in his fight to pass gun control measures. The ACLU is against another Pedersen measure. Pedersen says that there is a gap in current state law that allows some people who commit violent offenses to be either released or bounced between criminal and mental health facilities. He wants to fix that. “The bill says if you’ve been accused of a violent felony and you’re let go because you’re found incompetent to stand trial, there’s an easier standard for keeping you” via involuntary commitment.
Shankar Narayan with the ACLU, however, has serious concerns with the bill, which he says “not only fails to solve a problem, it creates some pretty serious Constitutional problems.”
Narayan says judges already have discretion to call a commitment hearing if they believe someone is a danger to the community. “This bill takes away judicial discretion… There’s a serious Constitutional problem with making the judge lock someone up.”
Additionally, Narayan says there is no room in institutions. “What you will have is a situation where people with serious mental illnesses will be sent to incarceration facilities. They won’t be receiving appropriate treatment there, and that creates a public safety threat and a larger financial problem.”
Narayan says this bill “essentially says that mentally ill people should be treated differently just because they’re mentally ill” and that’s not fair. “We don’t think we should try to rig the system so that individuals are always facing another way to be committed rather than to receive the treatment that they need.”
Pedersen has a different take: “Both the ACLU and the Public Defenders Association are concerned about having a situation where accused people who are incompetent to stand trial would be subject to involuntary commitment more easily. That’s the central purpose of the bill. I don’t think there’s any way around that.”
Pedersen says he doesn’t see this as an opportunity where he can find common ground with the ACLU. “They’re probably not going to be happy with the tightening of this gap,” he says.