A SHOT AT SAFETY
November 4, 1997
Washington State has introduced tough legislation in an attempt to reduce gun-related accidents. But will the legislation, called Initiative 676, really protect the innocent or does it infringe on the right to bear arms? Rod Minott of KCTS, Seattle files this report.
Editors Note: Initiative 676 was soundly defeated 71 percent to 29 percent in Tuesday's election.
ROD MINOTT: Every day Chuck Hastings stops by this cemetery on Orcas Island, Northwest of Seattle. He comes here to visit the grave of his son.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
June 27, 1997
The ruling striking down mandatory background checks.
Online Forum: March 1997:
Freshman Reps. Gibbons and Carson discuss more gun control legislation.
January 9, 1997:
A report on federal gun control laws.
December 3, 1996:
The debate on gun control and the Brady Bill.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of law.
Washington State's Web site for Initiative 676, on gun safety locks.
CHUCK HASTINGS: (talking to son) Sure do miss you, Mike.
ROD MINOTT: Two years ago a shooting accident took the life of 14-year-old Michael Hastings. It happened after a babysitter at a friend's home played with a stolen handgun.
CHUCK HASTINGS: And the 17-year-old babysitter pulled out a nine millimeter pistol and started playing around with it, and pointing it. And the last words my son said was, "Don't point that gun. Put it away." And he was shot above the right eye. Several hours later he was dead at Harborview.
ROD MINOTT: For Chuck Hastings grief over his son's death soon turned to anger. The retired carpenter threw away all the guns he owned and started campaign for gun safety.
CHUCK HASTINGS: I'm angry because there are so many handguns out there for children to get a hold of. First of all, we need more education on these handguns and the reality of what can happen with any kind of gun. Guns are not toys. They're real, and they do kill.
ROD MINOTT: Hastings became an outspoken advocate for a controversial gun licensing measure on the Washington State ballot known as Initiative 676.
SPOKESPERSON: Have you folks signed for handgun safety?
What is Initiative 676?
ROD MINOTT: If Initiative 676 passes, it would impose one of the toughest gun safety laws in the nation. Starting January 1, 1999, 676 would require trigger locks to be sold with handguns. It would also require handgun owners to take an eight-hour safety training course or pass an exam on the safe handling, operation, and storage of guns before they could possess the handgun. On top of that, handgun owners would have to obtain a gun safety license from the sate verifying they had completed the training or exam. It would cost $25. Failing to get the safety license could bring a misdemeanor or felony charge, as well as police confiscation of the handgun. Gun rights advocates say the handgun in initiative is too vague, too broadly written, and unenforceable. Doc Carlson, who works at a gun shop in downtown Seattle, says he thinks the initiative will hurt gun dealers and won't make any real difference in saving lives.
DOC CARLSON: Absolutely. We could lose business. A lot of them would probably have to shut down. We're 100 percent for safety, 1,000 percent for safety, but you cannot legislate people's actions; when you do, you're running the risk of running into a totalitarian government-style regime.
ROD MINOTT: 676 opponents also insist the initiative is not a safety measure. Alan Gottlieb is a leading gun rights advocate who heads the anti-676 campaign.
"What this does is punishes every gun owner, not those few who misuse their firearms."
ALAN GOTTLIEB: This is definitely about gun control and very strict gun control. It would give Washington State one of the strictest gun control laws anywhere in the country. They're hiding behind the handgun safety ballot title. But this has nothing to do with safety. In fact, it doesn't mandate how anybody has to store a firearm. There's nothing in it about safety, itself. On top of that if somebody does unsafe practices or recklessly endangers somebody, there's no penalties in this law for that either. What this does is punishes every gun owner, not those few who misuse their firearms.
TOM WALES: We have simply had enough. We have lost too many kids to firearms violence.
ROD MINOTT: Tom Wales argues 676 is about gun safety, not gun control. A federal prosecutor, Wales is also co-chairman for the pro-676 campaign.
TOM WALES: It clearly will save lives. The Journal of the American Medical Association reported this month that 15 states in the United States have safe storage laws requiring that handguns be kept locked up away from kids. And they have found that in those states there were 23 percent fewer fatalities among kids than in states that don't have such laws. So we know that trigger locks work, and we know that education will teach people they need to use them.
ROD MINOTT: To drive home that message of child safety supporters have been running a series of hard hitting ads.
AD ANNOUNCER: Let's get smarter about kids and guns. Initiative 676 requires handgun owners to purchase a child safety trigger lock and take a safety class. Oh, sure, it's a little inconvenient, but what would you rather do, buy a lock and attend a class, or buy a coffin and attend a funeral? Paid for by Washington Citizens for Handgun Safety.
BY 2001, gunfire could become the leading cause of injury deaths in America.
ROD MINOTT: The debate over gun safety comes amid rising public concern over gun violence. From 1991 to 1995, 241 children and teenagers in Washington State were killed or injured in handgun accidents. And nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control, each year some 4300 children and teenagers are rushed to hospitals emergency rooms with accidental gun injuries. About 493 children and teenagers died from such wounds in 1995. By the year 2001 the Centers For Disease Control estimates gunfire will surpass auto crashes as the leading cause of all injury deaths in the United States. With that in mind, many physicians have endorsed the handgun safety initiative, including the Washington State Medical Association.
DR. ROY FARRELL: This is the other side of the man's leg. The bullet went in--remember, a pretty nice, small hole where it went in--this is where the bullet came out on the other side.
ROD MINOTT: Dr. Roy Farrell is an emergency room physician in Seattle, who supports 676. He teaches a class for school kids on the trauma caused by gun wounds. The idea is to make children aware of the dangers and consequences of firearms.
DR. ROY FARRELL: The rate of gunshot injuries in this country is several times higher, maybe on average four times higher, than the rate of gunshot injuries in the other twenty-five major industrialized nations. We have in this state since 1992 had more deaths from gunshot wounds than automobile accidents. That's true for five other states.
ROD MINOTT: With recent polls showing the vote on 676 a virtual toss-up the National Rifle Association has dispatched some of its top strategists to work full-time on defeating it; among them, chief lobbyist Tanya Metaksa, who spoke at a recent rally near Seattle.
TANYA METAKSA: Is everyone here opposed to 676? Well, we're here to let everyone know that defending a constitutionally guaranteed right, defending the right to defend yourself and your family, and protecting the privacy of a million or more Washington families is what our NRA family is all about.
Gun rights activists take shots at Initiative 676.
ROD MINOTT: The NRA also flew in its most famous member and spokesman, movie actor Charlton Heston. Heston blasted the measure as "nutty," and said that handgun safety locks are not fool proof.
CHARLTON HESTON: It says, "Caution do not install on a loaded gun." The reason for that is if you drop a gun with a safety lock on it, it can go off. That's why every manufacturer includes this caution. Now, of course, that promotes a curious circular line of reasoning. If you can't put a safety lock on a loaded gun, then what do you need the safety lock for?
ROD MINOTT: But 676 supporters say the case for safety locks got a big boost when President Clinton recently struck a deal with eight major gun manufacturers to provide child safety devices with every new handgun.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Today, because of the voluntary action of the firearms industry millions of our citizens will receive this protection. Today we stand together and stand with the law enforcement community to do what we all know is right for our children.
ROD MINOTT: Supporters of trigger locks say that presidential agreement covers 80 percent of new sales of handguns. They argue Initiative 676 would go further by mandating safety devices on all sales of handguns.
TANYA METAKSA: If there are any cops out there, come on up.
ROD MINOTT: Many law enforcement officers remain opposed to the gun safety measure. They argue 676 will take time away from catching crooks if police are too busy chasing down violators of the handgun safety measure.
SHERIFF GARY EDWARDS, Thurston County: They're going to create a bunch of criminals in this country, in this state, that are otherwise good citizens just because of their lack of ability to comply.
ROD MINOTT: That concern is echoed by Alan Gottlieb.
ALAN GOTTLIEB: There's only 600 certified civilian firearms instructors in the state of Washington. If you take the million names that they're talking about of handgun owners to run it through these classes, it's physically impossible when the date can't be met, it's mandated in the initiative that guns could be confiscated and that people can be arrested. That's not about safety.
ROD MINOTT: Gun rights advocates have launched TV ads that play on those fears about gun confiscation.
TV AD ANNOUNCER: 676 would make you a criminal for simply owning a handgun without a government license, or just being in the same house with one. Any violation means confiscation, forfeiture, or prosecution. That's why thousands of law enforcement officers, responsible parents, and citizens are opposing 676. Paid for by Washington Citizens Against Regulatory Excess.
ROD MINOTT: But Tom Wales insists fears of gun confiscation are overblown.
TOM WALES: You know, our critics will call this what they will. This really is about gun safety. It is not about taking people's guns away. In fact, if you--after the initiative passes--are found in possession of a handgun and you don't have a license, the handgun is taken away by the police. But if you go get trained or pass an examination showing you know how to use it, and you get a license, you get your handgun back.
ROD MINOTT: Supporters of 676 know they face a formidable opponent in the National Rifle Association. Indeed, NRA leaders have vowed they will spend whatever it takes to defeat 676. Recent campaign spending reports show gun rights groups have raised more than $2.3 million, or twice as much money as their opponents. Supporters of 676 have their own big contributors--Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates and his father have donated a total of $185,000. The infusion of cash from both sides has made this the most costly initiative campaign in Washington State history.