Gov. Jay Inslee seeks to strengthen background checks to lessen the toll of gun violence, calling his proposal “a public-health response to a public-health crisis.”
Determined to lessen the toll of gun violence, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday the state will seek to strengthen background checks by improving information sharing among agencies and reduce suicides by implementing a statewide prevention plan.
“While Congress has failed for years to make progress on reducing gun violence, we are not afraid to take action in Washington state,” Inslee said at a Burien news conference, where he was joined by public-health and law-enforcement representatives.
Inslee issued an executive order that directs state and local agencies and the University of Washington to gather and review data on firearm deaths and injuries — and to recommend strategies to reduce those numbers.
To strengthen the background-check law approved by voters in 2014, Inslee directed the state Office of Financial Management to analyze how information is shared among state agencies, courts, local jurisdictions, law enforcement and other entities to make improvements to the system.
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A year ago, Washington voters passed Initiative 594, which expanded gun-purchase background checks to include private sales and transfers. The initiative received nearly 60 percent of voter approval statewide. In the 2015 legislative session, most other proposals from I-594 backers went nowhere.
The governor also directed the state Attorney General’s Office to analyze enforcement practices to better hold accountable those trying to buy a gun illegally. He said 5,000 background checks were run since the new law took effect in 2015, but it’s not clear if anyone who attempted to purchase a gun illegally was prosecuted.
Inslee’s announcement comes a day after President Obama, frustrated at Congress’ refusal to pass tougher gun restrictions, came out with plans for expanded background checks and other modest measures.
Between 2012 and 2014, according to Inslee’s office, an average 665 people per year died in Washington state from firearm injuries, compared with 497 from automobile accidents. About 80 percent of the firearms deaths were suicides, the governor said, adding that the statewide plan would focus on those at highest risk.
Inslee said government has taken a public-health approach in the effort to reduce motor-vehicle deaths and injuries, including seat-belt and tougher DUI laws as well as safer vehicle designs.
He said his initiatives on gun violence and suicide take that same approach.
Those strategies also draw on a similar initiative under way in King County for a number of years. For example, local hospitals, law enforcement, medical examiners and researchers share data on gun-related injuries and fatalities to better identify the risks and needs in the community.
The county also has run a firearm safe-storage program for several years with the support of local gun retailers and law enforcement. Led by Public Health — Seattle & King County, the program received a $30,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice for billboard and bus advertisements urging gun owners to lock up their weapons.
But with suicides accounting for the majority of gun deaths in Washington, some criticized Inslee for linking the national gun-control debate with suicide prevention.
Alan Gottlieb, founder and executive vice president of the Second Amendment Foundation based in Bellevue, said he and the gun industry have been working for the past year with suicide-prevention advocates on strategies including safe storage and keeping guns away from criminals and people with mental illness.
“When he (Inslee) starts mandating through executive action gun-control measures, he’s going to sabotage all the efforts of the past year to lower suicide rates,” Gottlieb said.
Joining Inslee at the news conference was Jennifer Stuber, an associate professor at the UW School of Social Work whose husband killed himself with a gun in 2011. She said focusing on suicide prevention avoids the divisive debate over gun control.
“Nobody wants guns to be misused in suicide, homicide or mass murder. We need to work harder to find the common ground and not do things that are destructive to collaboration,” she said.
King County Sheriff John Urquhart called Inslee’s approach “measured and comprehensive.”
He said the issue of gun violence is too often reduced to bumper-sticker slogans and bullies on either side of the debate yelling at each other.
“Both sides believe in the Constitution. Both believe gun violence has to be reduced in this country because it is too high. We need to shame both sides into sitting down and talking or we’ll continue as we have for years and years,” Urquhart said. “That is unacceptable to me as a police officer and as a citizen of King County and the United States.”
As the federal government and many states have declined to enact gun-violence-prevention measures, some cities have taken action on their own. In August, the Seattle City Council unanimously approved a tax on firearms and ammunition, with the funds to be used for research and prevention.
The Seattle tax of $25 per gun and 2 or 5 cents per round of ammunition took effect Jan. 1. A King County Superior Court judge last month dismissed an NRA lawsuit that sought to block the tax.