Elaine Thompson/AP

Gun control advocates hope Washington state measure sets national example

Background-check initiative passes, proving appetite for sensible gun control, advocates say

In a dreary election cycle for many progressive causes, gun control activists scored a significant victory in Washington state, where they succeeded in passing a background-check law by ballot initiative.

Initiative 594, which extends checks to gun shows, online sales and transfers, with exemptions carved out for law enforcement, family members and for lawful hunting and range shooting purposes, passed easily, garnering the support of nearly 60 percent of Washingtonians.

Moreover, Initiative 591, a ballot measure launched to directly contradict its counterpart, which would have banned background checks in the absence of a federal standard and outlawed gun confiscation, was defeated, with 45 percent support.

The results Tuesday headed off a possible court battle over the two initiatives, which would have taken place had early polling proved correct and voters paradoxically approved both measures.

“Washington, D.C., is broken, but Washington state is not,” said Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, one of the lead advocacy organizations involved in the state. “It really shows that the gun lobby can bully politicians but they cannot bully the American people … When legislators won’t carry out the will of the people, people will stand up for themselves and protect each other.”

The organizers of 594 regarded Washington state as a test case for using ballot initiatives to circumvent state and federal lawmakers who have been reticent to embrace gun control measures, even as public opinion polls show broad support for background checks. It is the first state in the nation to pass such a provision by popular vote. State lawmakers declined to bring a background check bill to the floor of the state house for a vote in past years, and federal legislation fell in the Senate in 2013, even after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.

“What it shows is that the problem is the politics, not the policy,” said Sarah Trumble, a policy counsel for the center-left think tank Third Way who specializes in gun policy.

Watts said if a win in Washington state is possible, where there is an active hunting and shooting culture in the more conservative eastern half of the state and gun ownership is reported to be about 33 percent, victories in other states are also possible.

Organizers are eyeing Nevada, Arizona and Maine next, where the mechanism of ballot initiatives is available. 

The regional and cultural differences in the state were written all over the election night map. Initiative 594 drew overwhelming support in the state’s western coast, drawing 78 percent of the vote in King County, home to Seattle and Tacoma. Initiative 591 was much more popular in the rural interior. Perhaps in a sign of confusion among some voters about exactly what both initiatives accomplished, Spokane and Asotin counties voted yes on both measures. Walla Walla County, near the state’s southeast corner, voted down both.

“A lot of people think that Washington state is a liberal bastion, and it’s not. I-594 was not a foregone conclusion,” Watts said. “This was a hard-fought battle, and we had both momentum and money this time, and we have a lot of passion.”

Significant resources helped: Initiative 594’s war chest burgeoned to $10 million, with donations from New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Seattle billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer, according to The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The National Rifle Association (NRA), the biggest gun rights advocacy group in the country, was conspicuously absent from the debate. According to data compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, gun rights groups were able to cobble together only $138,000 to run television ads.

“They had a huge budget. They were able to get their message out all over the place and repeatedly, and the 591 campaign simply didn’t have that financial reach,” said Dave Workman, communications director for the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. “I think that if it had been a level playing field, we would’ve seen a different outcome.”

Trumble had a different view, saying gun control advocates were finally reaching parity with the gun lobby, attracting the money and clout that the NRA has boasted of for decades.

“Things are finally evening out,” she said. “The NRA knew that this was a harder battle than anything they might’ve had to do before.”

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