By Jerry Cornfield
OLYMPIA — Back in 1965, with mounting evidence of the ill effects of smoking, Congress decided every pack of cigarettes should come with a few words of caution. Thus was born the first Surgeon General’s Warning. Its effectiveness in coaxing a smoker to quit or convince someone not to start is considered minimal these days.
But those few words — enshrined in law — are a signature and abiding element of a multifaceted and multimillion-dollar campaign against the use of tobacco products. Now a similar approach toward guns may be on the horizon — and in front of Washington voters this fall. Initiative 1639, which would impose new restrictions on gun owners and buyers, is awaiting certification by the Secretary of State for the Nov. 6 ballot.
Most of the attention is on its ban on sales of semiautomatic rifles to anyone under 21 and a requirement for background checks on buyers. It also requires owners to lock up their firearms or potentially face criminal charges if one of them is used to injure or kill someone. There’s also a provision, in a vein similar to the Surgeon General’s Warning, to alert would-be buyers of dangers associated with firearms. It calls for adding the following language to the application form that buyers must complete and sign at the time of purchase:
CAUTION: The presence of a firearm in the home has been associated with an increased risk of death to self and others, including an increased risk of suicide, death during domestic violence incidents, and unintentional deaths to children and others. Drafters of I-1639 snared the verbiage from a law on the books in New York City. They want to make Washington the first place where it is employed statewide.
“This was really a common-sense approach for us,” said Renee Hopkins, chief executive officer of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is spearheading the ballot measure. They hope that buyers, after reading the words, will be inclined to take steps to ensure their new weapon is locked up at home.
“We believe most gun owners are responsible and want to do what is needed to keep their family safe,” she said. “This language is about ensuring they know and understand that having a gun in the home increases the risks.”
The purpose is not to deter anyone from making a purchase. “It is about how you deal with firearms once you own them,” she said. Certainly more than words on an application would be needed to change a buyer’s mind at the check-out counter. Adding a photo from a crime scene or a mass shooting to the paperwork might get them to pause. That’s not the vision of those behind this year’s initiative, Hopkins said. “Our intent is to be sure people are well-informed when they purchase a firearm,” she said. “It is a really modest approach.”