In Washington state, where a gun is not a weapon

Gun owners’ fears about Big Government, universal registry and Seattle liberals have them opposing background checks

Rich Haines, 41, outside his home in Deer Park, Washington, Oct. 7, 2014.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

DEER PARK, Wash. — There is a Ruger pistol, a Smith & Wesson revolver and a Beretta semiautomatic laid out on the coffee table in front of Rich Haines.

The 41-year-old National Rifle Association–certified instructor, during his courses on target shooting and self-defense, takes care to explain each piece of the equipment to his pupils — the cylinder where the bullets are housed in the revolver, the slide on the semiautomatic, the lands and the grooves in the muzzle, the hammer that strikes the firing pin when the trigger is squeezed.  

Just don’t go calling them weapons.

“None of these are weapons. We call these what they are. This is a pistol and this is a pistol,” he interjects when he hears the W-word. “We teach what it is. We are not looking for this to be a weapon.”

What may seem like semantics to the uninitiated is a critical distinction for Haines and Doug Rosso, 68, a fellow gun hobbyist administering this particular lesson.

The view that firearms, as a category, are the enemy and that guns are a hazard to public safety, to be heavily regulated and monitored, is the real danger, Rosso and Haines say — an argument that an overzealous government uses to chip away at their gun rights.  

They are so adamant about this point that the two men have volunteered to give a reporter who has never handled a firearm an impromptu crash course on gun safety and target shooting, first in Rosso’s living room and then on an improvised range.

This election season, Washington state will be the newest frontier in the battle between gun control and gun rights advocates, with a fascinating legal twist. Voters in November are likely to pass Initiative 594, which would extend background checks to gun shows, online sales and private transfers between certain parties — similar to federal legislation that failed to clear the Senate in 2013. They may simultaneously pass Initiative 591, launched in opposition to 594, which outlaws background checks in the absence of a federal standard and prevents the government from confiscating guns without due process.

Analysts say voter confusion is at the heart of this electoral paradox. If both ballot initiatives pass, a decision about which statute to enforce will likely be left up to the courts.

It’s safe to say that Rosso and Haines are not among the ambivalent.

Spending a few hours at the range reveals exactly what gun owners in rural eastern Washington find so onerous about a seemingly mild gun control provision that has the support of the majority of the American public and demonstrates the deep regional and cultural divisions on an issue that remains as intractable as ever.

After teaching the classroom portion of the course, the two men drive down winding dirt roads to an idyllic patch of farmland where Haines sets up targets — paper plates affixed to a piece of farm equipment.

Haines teaches gun safety to student Eddie Marx at a makeshift shooting range near his home.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

Haines is a precise instructor who has taken 60 hours of NRA training on pistol handling and spends his spare time instructing Cub Scouts and other private parties. He teaches how to grip each of the different firearms correctly, how to sight the targets, how to properly breathe when firing and how to avoid flinching so as not to disrupt the shot. Rosso occasionally pipes up with advice.

The two men above all emphasize safety. Always ensure the gun is pointed down range, Haines commands. Always keep your finger off the trigger until ready to shoot. Always check and double-check the firearms before and after shooting to make sure they are unloaded.

It becomes clear that Haines and Rosso take pride in being not only expert marksmen but also responsible, conscientious gun owners.

Consequently, to them, having to abide by any new state-mandated regulations on firearms — even if it is just another background check, the kind that they routinely clear when purchasing from dealers — is just as insulting and nonsensical as new regulations on the family tractor because there’s a chance it might run someone over. Worse, in fact, because gun ownership is a constitutional right they cherish.

“What they do is they instill fear in you, and once people have fear in them, they want protection and they are willing to give up some of their rights,” Haines says darkly about what he characterizes as a kind of hysteria on the left about firearms. “Guns are neither safe nor unsafe by themselves. When the gun owner learns to practice responsible gun ownership, guns are safe.”  

Rosso and Haines are furthermore intent on opposing Initiative 594 because they are certain, all assurances to the contrary aside, that it is just the opening volley in broader crackdown on gun rights — meaning eventual bans on certain clips, magazines, ammunition and ultimately the kinds of firearms they are allowed to possess.

“Progressives tend to think that they know better, and for whatever reason, they think, ‘I have the right to take from you. We’re so much smarter, so much wiser, more educated. We’re just better people, and therefore we should have the right to determine what other citizens should do,’” Rosso fumed. “What they want is total gun control — taking all firearms away.”

Rifles at a makeshift shooting range near Haines’ home.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

Across eastern Washington, it seems that to gun owners, the scuffle over a background check is not really about a background check at all.

When asked about 594, gun rights supporters will often talk about liberal elites in Seattle, whom they accuse of distrusting or outright despising the culture of hunting and shooting and of imposing their way of life on others.

“We think the penalties are outrageous, we think the requirements are unnecessary and unhelpful, and we think it is aimed at harassing and making firearm ownership extremely difficult,” said Bill Burris, a former detective and a spokesman for the Washington State Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association, referring to the transfer provision. (The initiative in fact carves out exemptions for transfers between immediate family members, law enforcement officials and several kinds of loans, including for lawful hunting and personal protection.)

Del Carman, 70, who recently attended a NRA workshop on the two gun initiatives, was even more forthright in his disdain.  

“You know what they say? ‘I would never have a gun in my home. I would never allow my children to touch a gun.’ It’s stupid. It’s like saying, ‘I would never have my son have a fishing pole — it could kill a fish. I would never have my son hit a stick — he might hit a dog with it,’” Carman said, rolling his eyes. “Sure, Michael Bloomberg has a billion dollars. So he’s a billion-dollar idiot.”

They are convinced that 594 is just a front to create gun registry of all gun owners in the state by creating a thorough paper trail of gun transfers — a charge that is frequently leveled by gun lobbying organizations and that has been debunked on the federal level.

“They want to create a de facto registry of every handgun in the state. They want to track where that gun goes and when it comes back. And that’s the only reason that they want that information,” said Dave Workman, communications director for the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.

He added that he and other gun rights activists would have been on board with a less invasive background check proposal that applied to gun shows and online sales but left private transfers alone and stipulated that there could be no registry.

“Politics is supposed to be about the art of compromise. To gun banners, compromise is, we give them what they want or at least a part of what they want,” he said. “Tomorrow, they come back for the rest.”

And chances are you’ll hear from gun owners in Washington state about why Initiative 594 is another intrusion by Big Government into private lives.

Haines high-fives student Eddie Marx for getting a question right during a gun safety lesson.
Peter DiCampo for Al Jazeera America

“We were around guns from the time that we were little kids, and we never had a problem. We were taught right from wrong, and it was part of our culture,” said Ken Brown, 71. “We’ve got the right to go take a gun and shoot it without the government looking down our necks.”

The NRA, which spent $3.4 million lobbying against gun control provisions in 2013 and is expected to step up its involvement in Washington state in the final weeks before the vote, has echoed these suspicions in its materials.  

“Initiative 594 is a universal handgun registration scheme being bankrolled and promoted by a very wealthy group of anti-gun elitists who have already raised nearly $8 million,” a NRA website set up to rally opposition to 594 reads. “Although they describe it as a ‘universal background check measure,’ it is not ‘universal’ because criminals will never comply with the requirements. It is, however, universal handgun registration.”

But if background checks aren’t a palatable answer to gun owners in Washington state and the NRA, what is? Is there a role for the government in preventing gun violence?

In the year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, which brought the gun violence issue back to the fore in the national conscience, on the whole, states across the country have opted to loosen restrictions instead of tightening them: Of the 109 gun bills signed into law, 70 have relaxed requirements. 

Meanwhile, the United States continues to rank among the top countries with the highest rate of gun ownership, with an average of about 88 firearms per 100 people, according to a 2007 small arms survey. It also ranks high among developed countries with the highest percentage of gun deaths, outpacing most European nations, Canada and Australia. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, firearms resulted in the deaths of 31,000 Americans in 2010, including homicides, suicides and intentional deaths. 

Haines and others have a solution that sounded remarkably similar to NRA President Wayne LaPierre’s in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting.

“Background checks won’t prevent anything,” Haines said. “If you want a law-abiding citizenry, arm the people.”

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