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

Anna King
From left to right, Ben and Frank Wolf are brothers who farm together in the Palouse in southeast Washington.

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. The initiative is likely to pass, according to a recent poll. But in rural Washington, some people are skeptical the initiative will hit its intended target.

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

“And keep on eating it, ‘cause we do grow a lot of that in this area,” said Ben Wolf, the older brother.

Ben and his brother, Frank Wolf, have been very busy with the harvest. They hadn’t even heard of I-594 until I called. And they weren’t too excited to learn that loaning a gun to a friend, a neighbor or a twice-removed relative is, well, going to be harder if it passes, at least for those who follow the law. The brothers say that doesn’t make much sense on this form.

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

‘Sometimes The Quieter Voice Doesn’t Get Heard’

I-594 says anyone transferring a gun who is not an immediate family member 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 circumstances. 

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

“Oh, about 15 years ago when I lived along the highway, I had a guy stop by to borrow gas,” he said.

That man 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 came charging.

“He started running toward the house. 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,” Ben said.

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

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

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 often on short notice and just not a big deal. Frank says people who support I-594 don’t get that. 

“Yeah, there are times where it doesn’t seem like we get our voice heard over here, 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,” Frank said.

‘We Don’t Engage In Those Sorts Of Conversations’

So far in eastern Washington, I-594 is ahead in the polls. Don Schwerin is part of that. He’s a senior volunteer making calls to homes across Washington state for the campaign.

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

“That person declined to answer because they simply do not do political conversations on the phone. And that’s a fair response,” Schwerin said of one call made on a recent night.

Schwerin dialed about a dozen numbers, but never did get a live caller willing to talk.

“Tough night,” he said.

Schwerin, who is now retired, has a Ph.D. in political science. And he was a wheat and cattle rancher outside of Walla Walla. He worries that the two sides of I-594 are sticking to their talking points instead of 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. We sometimes know what our neighbors’ sentiments are, and we simply choose to not push the issue,” he said.

Passage Of I-594 Likely Won’t Change Much On The Farm

Ben and Frank’s sentiments on I-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.

But will he think twice about handing his gun to a friend or a relative without a background check?

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

In fact, Ben knows it’s likely Washington will probably vote in I-594, but he also knows a new law won’t really change operations on the farm.

“By no means, nope,” he said.

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.