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Originally published March 16, 2013 at 7:39 PM | Page modified March 16, 2013 at 7:38 PM

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Bill’s defeat a case study on gun issue

The defeat of a House bill on background checks is a case study on our societal-wide resignation on gun issues.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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It turns out after all the shock and talk, all the resolve and promise, we are right back where we started.

We’re not going to do anything about guns.

Other than wait for the next mass shooting. Which is on its way, sure as spring.

The gun-control drive in Olympia apparently ended last week, when a modest bill to expand background checks to private gun sales failed to even get a vote.

Why did it fail? The story of Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, says it all.

She was one of the original sponsors of House Bill 1588. It said if you sell a gun but are not a gun dealer, you have to do a background check to see if the buyer is eligible to own a gun.

You’d have to go to a gun shop or police and pay them $20 to do the check. All kind of a hassle, yes. But the point was to slow the easy transfer of guns to people who shouldn’t have them.

After the NRA leafleted her district, flooding her with 1,000 calls and emails, Walsh changed her position to “no.” So ended the bill’s momentum.

“I have really come to realize that no legislation will ever address the criminal element as far as guns are concerned,” Walsh said. “Thus the bill only targets (no pun intended) lawful gun owners, and the application of the law would not be logical.”

I called Walsh to see if she would explain her pivotal switch in more detail, but she didn’t call back. I find her reasoning both false and defeatist, but it turned out to be the winning argument so let’s unpack it a bit.

First, the notion that background checks only hit lawful gun owners — it’s just not true. We know this because we already do background checks, at gun shops. Last year there were 519,209 such checks on gun buyers and license applicants in Washington state, according to the FBI.

I asked the FBI how many had flagged someone ineligible to own a gun. They don’t break the figures out by state. But the typical reject rate nationally is 1 to 2 percent.

That may not sound like much. But it means 5,000 to 10,000 people in our state were denied a gun or gun permit last year. Usually because they were an ex-con, a domestic abuser or a fugitive, and sometimes due to mental illness.

This would be worth it if only 500, or 50, of this crowd was stopped from getting guns. Yet porous as it is, the system stopped 5,000.

So when Walsh and the NRA say background checks only target law-abiding gun owners, they are just wrong.

Even the criminals say so.

Last year Johns Hopkins lookedat where prison inmates got the guns used in their crimes. Half said they had bought them. Of those, more than two-thirds said they got them through the private market — on the street, from acquaintances or through classified ads.

“It is noteworthy how criminals avoid the regulated gun market of licensed sellers and prefer the largely unregulated market involving unlicensed sellers,” the researchers concluded.

It’s noteworthy, but also blindingly obvious. Trying to patch this gaping hole was the sole point of House Bill 1588. Yet it couldn’t even get a vote.

Its defeat was hardly Walsh’s doing alone. But her story is like a case study in our societal-wide resignation on gun issues.

Listen to her quote again.

“I have really come to realize that no legislation will ever address the criminal element as far as guns are concerned,” said the former gun-control supporter.

Think about what that means. It means game over. Nothing will help. Nothing can ever change. So no matter the quality of facts presented, or quantities of blood spilled, nothing is what we intend to do.

People wondered if the last school shooting doesn’t get us to do something about guns, what will? We’re getting our answer.

Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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