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Originally published March 12, 2013 at 9:36 PM | Page modified March 13, 2013 at 4:58 PM

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Bill to boost gun checks falls short in state House

House Democrats in Olympia have conceded defeat in their effort to pass a bill to require background checks for all gun purchases in Washington.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

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OLYMPIA — Gun-control advocates in the state House conceded defeat Tuesday night on their top priority this session: requiring background checks for all gun sales.

While cautioning that nothing is ever truly dead in Olympia, bill sponsor Jamie Pedersen said that after an intense day of politicking “it does not appear that we’re going to make it there” before Wednesday’s cutoff for non-budget legislation.

House Bill 1588 had come up three votes short.

“I always thought this was a stretch goal for us,” said Pedersen, a Seattle Democrat who had been pushing the bill for weeks. “It turns out it was too much of a stretch.”

The apparent defeat — rumors immediately circulated that Democrats may try to revive the bill on the floor Wednesday morning — came hours after supporters had offered to amend the bill to give voters the final say on the issue.

That move ultimately did more harm than good when it came to support for the bill, Pedersen said.

Supporters in the state Senate were not yet ready to declare the bill dead Tuesday night, but they acknowledged it would be difficult for them to pass the proposal.

Gun-control advocates signaled they might consider an initiative if universal background checks are not approved in the Legislature.

Second-amendment activists described the development as a victory.

“There were a lot of concerns from people that we were going to be criminalizing law-abiding citizens,” said state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley. “I think those concerns had a pretty tremendous impact.”

The universal background-check proposal would end a discrepancy in state law that exempts private residents from conducting a background check before selling a gun.

Licensed dealers must conduct the checks, meant to prevent felons and people who are mentally ill from getting guns.

Supporters say expanding the checks to private sellers would reduce gun violence. Opponents say it would be both ineffective and unconstitutional.

Pedersen — along with House Speaker Frank Chopp, Gov. Jay Inslee and even former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona — had worked furiously over the past few days to secure the final votes needed for passage in the House.

That effort included the addition Tuesday morning of the referendum clause, which would have put the issue on the November ballot.

But as a floor debate planned for early afternoon was repeatedly delayed, it became clear that negotiations were more complicated.

Pedersen said later the clause had actually turned off a half dozen original supporters concerned about running a referendum in an off-year, low-turnout election.

The House did manage to approve measures to create a nonpublic registry of firearm offenders and to require people with restraining orders against them to surrender their guns, among other public-safety bills.

Even if the background-check bill had passed the House, it would have faced opposition in the Senate.

Supporters there said they had the votes to pass it — if they could somehow bring the measure to the floor in a chamber controlled by Republicans who oppose it.

Senate Minority Leader Ed Murray said Tuesday’s developments in the House made that even harder.

Despite the long odds, gun-control advocates saw passage in the House as important.

On Tuesday night, after hearing that the bill appeared off the table, the House Democratic Caucus gave Pedersen a loud ovation.

Several then emerged from their caucus room with tears in their eyes.

“As a parent of four young kids, ... ” said Seattle Democrat Reuven Carlyle, before pausing. “Just incredibly disappointing.”

Times Olympia reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 360-236-8267 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.

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