There must be reasonable arguments against increased background checks for gun purchases, right? They must exist, given the fact that dueling gun initiatives show up on this month’s ballot. Initiative 594 would require background checks for all gun buyers—no longer just the ones who buy from dealers, but also at gun shows and in private transactions. Initiative 591 would prohibit requiring background checks and prohibit the government’s confiscation of guns.
I have one side’s reasons down: that in Washington the background checks already in place have since 1998 kept more than 40,000 guns out of the hands of felons, domestic abusers, and the seriously mentally ill; that in other states that have closed the gun-show loophole, crime in several categories has plunged; that closing that loophole does nothing to threaten our Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.
What I’d never heard before were the reasonable arguments on the other side. So I went hunting.
First I encountered the futility reasons—“It won’t work” and “Criminals will always be able to get guns on the black market.” I’d been hearing these for years, and for years they’d struck me as odd. We build laws in the face of possible infractions all the time; the law is the very thing that creates a penalty against them. Not creating a law because it might fail is not only conceding to the bad guys, it’s like saying laws are only valuable to the extent that they’re foolproof. Laws are so much more than that—the very scaffolding upon which we construct society in the shape we want, for starters.
Besides, it only takes about two minutes into any conversation with a gun rights activist—the ones I talked to anyway—to get to the core of their real objection. I called the 61-year-old Dash Point organizer of the 2010 Second Amendment rally in Olympia, Jim Beal, because he served in Vietnam; I figured as a grandfather of three and a vet he might have earned some persuasively complex opinions about guns.
Here is what I got. “The government wants a registration system in place to where they can confiscate people’s weapons!” It’s the leap gun rights activists invariably make: that the American government wants the names of every gun owner for the purpose of seizing their guns. (Never mind that the nefarious American government could just hack into voluntarily submitted NRA rolls for a good starter list.)
Where does an upstanding guy like Jim Beal develop such deep distrust of his own government? Beal grew up in southeast Texas, the son of a NASA employee who gave him a .22 semiautomatic rifle for his 12th birthday. In Vietnam he served in the infantry and narrowly missed a rocket-propelled--grenade attack. “I don’t think the government likes veterans that are well trained,” he confided. He carries a pistol everywhere.
In Vietnam he was exposed to Agent Orange, which left him with serious heart trouble. He now lives on disability in a four-bedroom beach house. “The government wants to create a socialist society, where everybody is dependent on the government for everything,” Beal insists. “I can’t believe you can’t see that! This government is out of control!”
I don’t think he was referencing the fact that he was raised on a government paycheck, trained by the American military, and is sustained by the government safety net.
Still, to be fair, I can see how someone who suffers the ravages of toxic warfare might develop a legitimate beef with the government that exposed him. Only that’s not Beal’s beef. He sees enhanced background checks as one step away from Hitler’s 1933 confiscation of the guns of anti-Nazi sympathizers. Last July this very issue heated up locally, when an NRA lobbyist at an anti-594 rally in Silverdale expressed incredulity that Nick Hanauer, an early financial backer of the measure and a Jew, could support background checks: “…the same policy that led to his family getting run out of Germany by the Nazis.”
It’s precisely the prospect of that kind of police state emerging in America that anti-594ers like Jim Beal claim very real terror of. “Police should not be better armed than the populace!” he insists. And candidly, when he puts it that way—for a fleeting moment this progressive feels the guy. Anyone who was awake as Ferguson unfolded may not find it so hard to imagine Beal’s dystopian police state fantasies growing grimly real.
And then you take a breath. Because to imagine that these initiatives could stanch creeping police abuse, you’d have to believe that freer firearm access for felons and the mentally ill would solve it. And to suppose that tighter background checks were actually dangerous, you’d have to believe that the American government really was conspiring to confiscate its own civilians’ guns. (The same government—those shrewd conspirators—which threw away its post-Newtown opportunity to ride the surge of fresh feeling to unconstitutional ends.)
And then—provided you really did fear such a conspiracy—you’d finally have to believe a vigilante force of amateur gunslingers would make the wisest hedge against it.
If you are more afraid of the American government than of that—I have found the anti–background check argument. I’m just not going to call it reasonable.
This article appeared in the November 2014 issue of Seattle Met magazine.