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Rural Washington Farmers On I-594: Make Your Gun Laws, But We Won't Abide

Anna King
Northwest News Network

In rural parts of the Northwest, many believe owning a gun is sort of like owning a garden trowel. You just have one or two around.

In November, Washington voters will decide on two gun-related initiatives. Initiative 594, aims to close loopholes on gun sales without background checks and fresh polls say it’s likely to pass. But in rural areas, some people are skeptical the initiative will hit its intended target.

The Ben and Frank Wolf are brothers who farm together in Palouse country in southeast Washington. They run nearly 3,000-acres. The brothers raise wheat, peas, lentils and even loads of garbanzo beans for big-city hummus.

The Wolf brothers have been busy with harvest, so they hadn’t even heard of I-594. And these brothers weren’t too excited to learn that loaning a gun to a friend, a neighbor or a twice-removed relative is going to be harder if it passes. At least, for people who follow the new law.

They say that doesn’t make much sense on this farm.

Just like loaning someone a lawnmower

“The people who have guns are still going to have them,” Ben said. “And the bad guys who have guns or want them are going to get them one way or the other.”

I-594 says anyone transferring a gun that’s not immediate family needs a background check by a licensed dealer.

Frank and Ben say that’s a problem. They often loan a gun to a friend or neighbor for target practice or hunting. I-594 would allow that only under specific conditions.

The Wolf brothers mostly use guns for recreation. Ben admits he’s only really needed his gun one time.

“About 15 years ago when I lived along the highway, I had a guy stop by to borrow gas,” he recalled. The guy was drunk and said he was a felon. Ben gave him a can of gas. The guy used it, kicked the can into the driveway, peeled out and parked around the side of Ben's garage -- where Ben couldn't see him.

“Then he started running toward the house,” Ben said. “And luckily he tripped on a dog run wire. And he went back to his car but never left. I went down and got a 12-gauge shotgun and fired one shot in the air and he got the heck out of Dodge.”

With the sheriff up to an hour away for help -- he was glad he had it handy.

“But I did not fire at him,” Ben said. “It was a shot in the air, just a warning round.”

It’s the kind of thing that happens on a farm. Maybe more than you realize if you don’t live on one.

Out here, loaning a gun is like loaning a lawnmower. You do it to help someone out, it’s a short notice thing and it’s just not a big deal.

Frank said people who support I-594 don’t get that.

“There are times where it doesn’t seem like we get our voice heard over here,” he said. “Just because there are some different political lines between here and King County or the west side. And I believe it takes all walks of life to make this world go round, but sometimes the quieter voice doesn’t get heard.”

Still ahead in the polls

So far, in Eastern Washington, I-594 is ahead in the polls. Don Schwerin from the from the Initiative-594 campaign is part of that. He and other senior volunteers are making calls to homes across Washington State.

Credit Anna King / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Don Schwerin, of Waitsburg, Washington, makes calls to homes across Washington in support of I-594.

But for Schwerin, it’s a bit hard to get anyone on the phone to make his point.

“[One] person declined to answer because they simply do not do political conversations on the phone. And that’s a fair response.”

And after dialing about a dozen numbers he never does get a live caller willing to talk.

Schwerin’s retired now. He has a Ph.D. in political science. And he was a wheat and cattle rancher outside of Walla Walla, Washington. He worries that the two sides of I-594 are sticking to their talking points and not having a meaningful discussion.

“It’s a characteristic of Eastern Washington that we don’t engage in those sorts of conversations frankly with our neighbors,” Schwerin said. “We sometimes know what our neighbors sentiments are and we simply choose to not push the issue.”

‘We’ll all live with it’

Ben and Frank’s sentiments on 594 are pretty clear. And if the initiative passes, they know what they’re going to do.

“We’ll all live with it,” Ben said.

Is he worried that he could loan his gun to someone and later worry that he should have done a background check first?

“I can usually get a pretty good feel from someone in the first five minutes that I meet them,” Ben said. “And no I’d never think twice about that.”

Ben knows it’s likely Washington will probably vote in I-594 but said it “by no means” will change operations on the farm.

Editor's note: this story has been updated to indicate that I-594 allows gun transfers for recreation under certain circumstances.

Anna King calls Richland, Washington home and loves unearthing great stories about people in the Northwest. She reports for the Northwest News Network from a studio at Washington State University, Tri-Cities. She covers the Mid-Columbia region, from nuclear reactors to Mexican rodeos.