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An $8 rifle spurred a change to Washington's background check law. Here's how.

A close up shot on the rolling block mechanism of an old Remington rifle
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Cowlitz County Historical Museum director Joseph Govednik was intrigued by the "rolling block" mechanism of this 1904 Remington rifle, which was the catalyst to carving out an exception for museums in the state's universal background check law.

Making changes to gun laws often lays bare deep political divisions across the country. But a revision made to Washington state's background check rules this year notched a unique victory – winning support from every state lawmaker who voted on it, regardless of party.

It all started about two years ago.

Hans Schaufus was cleaning out his father's old house and rediscovered a single-shot Remington rifle he bought as a teenager in Ohio back in the ‘50s. He paid $8 for it.

He never imagined the long gun would be part of changing a state law on the other side of the country decades later.

"I had no idea what lied in store over this simple little .22 rifle," he said.

Schaufus brought the gun to the Cowlitz County Historical Museum.

The green-roofed building houses exhibits about the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, local industry and the early days of Washington state. The KOMO 4 News Car that was abandoned on Mt. St. Helens during the 1980 eruption greets visitors as they enter the bright lobby.

Schaufus has been friends with the museum's director, Joseph Govednik, for years. He didn't want his rifle to go anywhere else.

"He comes in and he's got this long package with him," said Govednik. "I said, 'Hans, what's in the package?' and he says, 'It's a rifle,' and I said, 'A rifle?' and he says, 'Yes, I want to give it to the museum.'"

Govednik was intrigued by the "rolling block" mechanism that the gun uses to shoot.

"We thought, 'we don't have anything like this in our collection as far as the mechanical way that this works – it'd be nice to put in here,'" he said.

There was just one problem: the state's law requiring background checks for nearly all gun sales or transfers. Voters approved the law in 2014 as an initiative to the Legislature.

Govednik points out, there isn't really a way to background check a nonprofit.

"Museums are – for the most part – nonprofit corporations, and you can't run a criminal background check on a nonprofit corporation like you can for a human being, and so that's where museums kind of got caught into this pickle of the law," he said.

That meant for nearly a decade, there was no legal avenue for museums in Washington to receive donated firearms that were manufactured after 1858. Schaufus' rifle was made in 1904.

Two men, Hans Schaufus and Joseph Govednik, stand outside the Cowlitz County museum, next to Schaufus' bright orange and white car
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Hans Schaufus (right) has been friends with the Cowlitz County Historical Museum's director, Joseph Govednik (left), for years, and knew he wanted to donate an old Remington rifle to the museum's collection.

It was a problem Govednik was determined to solve. He reached out to his local state senator, Jeff Wilson (R-Longview), who filed a bill in 2022 to exempt museums from the background check requirements. The bill stalled in the House that year.

So they tried again, this year working to get support from Democratic lawmakers who typically support tighter gun restrictions. Ultimately, the bill was written to allow gun transfers to museums without a background check. But it still requires those guns go through a licensed firearm dealer if museums return them to their original owners.

The new measure passed the Legislature unanimously.

"I was, quite frankly, floating the rest of the day because I was so happy for the efforts made on both sides of the aisle," Govednik said.

And the change is about more than just old guns.

Sadie Thayer is the Kittitas County Historical Museum director in Central Washington. Before the law changed, she had to turn away a donor who wanted to give the museum old items from his family – including a firearm. It was 2019 and there was still no ethical or legal way for her to accept the gun. The donor wasn't willing to leave it out.

"There were other items: papers, photos, his mother's wedding dress – you know things we would want in our collection," Thayer said. "It was an all or none, and he was like, 'Well I'm taking this stuff to auction.'"

Thayer hasn't heard from him since. She says it might seem small, but local donations are essential for museums. Rejecting any item makes it harder to piece together a community's shared history, she says, especially if it ends up auctioned off to private owners.

"They might not know what that item truly is, and another generation will throw it away and, you know, it'll become trash instead of the treasure it once was," Thayer added.

Back in Cowlitz County, visitors won't get to see the newly acquired Remington rifle on display quite yet – it's going into storage. But Govednik says the gun – now part of the museum's collection of about 40 firearms – could come out for future exhibits on things like hunting, rural living, or even civic engagement.

"This was a catalyst to amend a law in our state and cause some change, so it's historical in its own right," he said.

And while getting to this point was quite the civics lesson for Govednik, he hopes lawmakers learned something too.

"Any time there's any legislative changes that involve regulating material culture, to consider: 'How does this affect museums?' Because we are the ones that receive it in the end."

Hans Schaufus' old Remington rifle, pictured at the Cowlitz County Historical Museum.
Jeanie Lindsay
NW News Network
Hans Schaufus' old Remington rifle, pictured at the Cowlitz County Historical Museum.

Jeanie Lindsay is a radio reporter based in Olympia who covers the Washington state government beat for the Northwest News Network, the Pacific Northwest's regional collaboration of NPR stations.