Ted S. Warren / AP

In Washington state, gun reformers plot to circumvent skittish lawmakers

Ballot initiatives could be the new way forward for stalled efforts to reform gun laws across the country

SEATTLE — Cheryl Stumbo had thought through contingency plans for many hypothetical emergency situations. What would she do if there was ever an earthquake? What would she do if there was a burglar in her home?  

But she confesses she had never truly contemplated what would happen if a gunman forced his way into her workplace and opened fire.

Yet on July 28, 2006, Naveed Haq held a gun to the back of Stumbo’s 14-year-old niece, who was waiting in the lobby to visit her, and forced her to buzz him into the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, where Stumbo worked as a marketing and communications director. In the bloody rampage that followed, Haq, who said he was upset about the war in Iraq and U.S. support for Israel, shot Stumbo and five of her co-workers, killing one.  

Stumbo can still remember the feeling of having a 9-mm handgun pressed into her side, not knowing whether she would live or die. She was in the hospital for six weeks, ultimately undergoing 22 surgeries over three years, in addition to therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder. She tried to forget that Friday afternoon.

“Once all of that recovery was behind me, I didn’t want it to define my life. I didn’t want to be defined as a victim and a survivor,” she said. “I tried to go back to who I was before, but I realized that really wasn’t possible.”

For the last several years, Stumbo has been reliving that day over and over in the hope that it would spur legislative action on gun violence. She has watched with frustration as mass shootings have continued, as domestic abusers have continued to gun down their partners and lawmakers at the state level and in Congress have failed to make inroads, even after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, resulted in the death of 20 children. In Washington state, Stumbo testified before state lawmakers in Olympia, but to no avail: A background check bill didn’t even make it the House floor for a vote.

So when a new group called the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility formed in 2013 and wanted to try something novel, Stumbo agreed to step even further into the fray. She became the citizen sponsor of Initiative 594, a measure that takes the issue of background checks straight to the voters by putting it on the ballot in November.

Initiative 594 would extend background checks to gun shows and online sales as well as transfers, exempting those between immediate family members, law enforcement officials and several kinds of loans, such as for lawful hunting or personal safety.  

“Right now, as a society, we all agree that convicted felons and people who are domestic abusers and the mentally ill should not be able to get their hands on firearms, but if we don’t have background checks in place for everyone, how do you stop them?” Stumbo said. “[The initiative] is about enforcing the values that we all agree on as a society.”

By putting it on the ballot, gun violence activists are intent on taking an issue that has been frustratingly immovable, despite having the tide of public opinion at their backs, straight to voters.

“We know that America is with us. We just need them to vote with us,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of the advocacy group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, on a recent Monday evening to volunteers who had gathered in a church to staff a phone bank for Initiative 594. “We know they support us, but we also know that when they go to the polls, they’re not necessarily thinking about this issue.”

If the ballot initiative strategy works, it could have national implications — a way to circumvent recalcitrant state legislatures across the country, as well as a deadlocked Congress.  

“This is a bellwether in the sense that if this happens, which I think it will, we can look at a whole other host of states where this could work,” Watts later said in an interview with Al Jazeera America. “It is a way for us to bypass the state legislatures when they’re not willing to do the right thing because they’re in the pocket of the gun lobby and to go directly to the people.”

She and other gun violence activists concede that expanded background checks will not be a panacea for gun violence in the country. Many of the guns used in mass shootings, including at Sandy Hook and at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle were stolen or obtained legally after the perpetrators passed background checks. But she said it would nevertheless prevent crimes and be a starting point for changing the “culture of gun violence.”

“It is such a nonsensical argument that criminals are going to commit crimes anyways,” Watts said. “We are a nation of laws, and it is the moral fabric of our society, and to say that we’re going to give up and not going to try to stop these crimes is counterintuitive to everything else that we do.”

But gun violence activists in Washington state will have their work cut out for them during the next month. Opponents of 594 have launched Initiative 591, a diametrically opposing proposal that would ban background checks in the absence of a federal standard and furthermore, outlaw government confiscation of guns.

In an election year paradox, polling has showed that both initiatives may pass, although 594 appears to have more robust support. There is no legal precedent for such a scenario, although analysts say the issue would then likely be thrown to the courts or back to the state legislature.

Recognizing the stakes, the gun safety advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety, founded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has contributed $2 million to the 594 campaign, with the likes of billionaire businessmen Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer also donating to a nearly $8 million war chest, according to campaign filings. 

“[Bloomberg] is using the experience here to create a blueprint to do this in a lot of other states. They’ve already launched a similar campaign in Nevada, and next time they’re looking at Oregon,” said Dave Workman, the communications director for the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “We are a petri dish for this.”

Organizers of 594 say part of their challenge is combating the rampant misinformation and confusion among voters about exactly what the two initiatives would do. Several gun owners interviewed near Spokane, in the more conservative eastern part of the state, believed simply handing a firearm to a family member or lending it for hunting or target shooting to a friend or neighbor would be illegal without a background check — activities that are in fact exempted by the law.

“Even if I tell my son to go get the gun out of the safe — that would be illegal,” said John Wagner, 68, outside of a gun show in Spokane. “It’s crazy. It’s absurd.”

Geoff Potter, a spokesman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Safety, said the spreading of misinformation is no accident. “To our opposition here, especially the folks with 591, confusion of voters and confusion of gun owners is very important to what they do,” he said.

He flatly refuted another widely propagated argument among opponents of 594, that its backers are hostile to the culture of gun ownership and want to create a universal gun registry so as to eventually confiscate all firearms.  

“[The initiative] was designed specifically to be in line with respecting Second Amendment rights,” he said. “We have many, many gun owners as part of our coalition.”

Since the Sandy Hook massacre jolted the issue of gun violence back onto the national political stage, states across the country have opted to loosen restrictions instead of tightening them: Of the 109 gun bills signed into law since then, 70 have relaxed requirements. 

Meanwhile, the United States has one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world, with an average of about 88 firearms per 100 people, according to a 2007 small arms survey. Critics of the country’s liberal gun laws also point to the high number of gun deaths in the United States when compared with European nations, Canada and Australia. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 31,000 Americans died in 2010 in incidents that involved a firearm, including homicides, suicides and accidental shootings.

On a recent evening in Seattle, Jane Weiss was going through a printed phone sheet, getting voice mail after voice mail as she searched for volunteers to work on behalf of Initiative 594. 

Her niece Veronika Weiss was on her mind. The 19-year-old would have begun her second year of college that week. Veronika Weiss was walking into her sorority when she was shot without warning by 22-year-old Elliot Rodgers, who killed seven people including himself near the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara in May.

“Once you’ve lived through the idea that someone can take a life with one lethal shot — completely snuff out an entire life that had so much promise, so much brilliance, so much creativity, it totally changes how you feel,” Jane Weiss said.

As for those who so fervently oppose Initiative 594, she added, “I hope for their own sake that they never have to live through that.” 

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