Alan Gottlieb is an unusual-looking gun-rights activist. With a bow tie, mustache, and glasses that can politely be described as nerdy, the 67-year-old Bellevue, Washington, resident evokes Groucho Marx more than Ted Nugent. He may also prove to be an unusually shrewd advocate for his cause: The longtime conservative activist has figured out how to use Washington state’s citizen-sponsored initiative process as a weapon against an expanded-background-check law.
(Mitch Blunt)The story began earlier this year, when Initiative 594 made it onto Washington’s fall ballot. The measure would mandate background checks as a condition of most gun purchases and transfers in the state (with exceptions for weapon transfers within families and purchases involving antique guns). Its main goal is “closing the gun-show loophole,” says Geoff Potter, communications director for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the group spearheading the effort. The measure has drawn support in the form of big money—more than $9 million so far—from the likes of local plutocrats Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, and Paul Allen, as well as out-of-state billionaires such as Michael Bloomberg. Most of the money behind 594 “has come from just six individuals,” says Gottlieb. (Potter, for his part, points out that the campaign has some 8,000 individual donors.)
In response to 594, Gottlieb—working under the auspices of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms—began to promote his own measure, Initiative 591. It would prohibit the state “from requiring background checks on firearm recipients unless a uniform national standard is required.” In other words, unless the federal government mandates expanded background checks—highly unlikely in the current political climate—the state of Washington would not be allowed to do so. Initiative 591 would also ban “government agencies from confiscating guns or other firearms from citizens without due process.”
This past spring, it looked like both measures, which stand as separate yes-or-no ballot issues, would pass—creating two entirely contradictory laws. And although a mid-October poll by Elway Research in Seattle found that support for 591 had fallen below 51 percent, while 60 percent of respondents backed 594, that outcome remains a possibility; the poll surveyed registered rather than likely voters, so high turnout among conservatives could change the equation.
What would happen then? “We have no statute or case law dealing on rival initiatives passing in the same election, so it would be up to the Legislature or “… the courts to resolve,” says Dave Ammons, communications director for Washington’s Secretary of State’s Office. If the matter does wind up in court, he says, judges could return it to state lawmakers, who could “amend, abolish, harmonize, or pick a winner by a two-thirds vote of both chambers.”
That’s what Gottlieb is banking on. Indeed, that’s been central to his plan all along, he tells me. Washington’s Legislature has heretofore declined to mandate the kind of expansive background-check requirements that Initiative 594 supporters want. And with the state Senate governed by Republicans—who may also pick up seats this November—there’s no good reason to think they’re going to do so now. So even if 60 percent of Washington voters (or more) opt to support Initiative 594, a simple majority for 591 could carry the day by ensuring that the issue gets returned to the state House. “If they both pass, the courts will hopefully make the Legislature resolve the conflict,” Gottlieb says.
Potter says that if both initiatives succeed, it will be because 591’s backers have been sowing “confusion” by raising the specter of “gun confiscation,” even though no gun has ever been seized without due process in Washington’s history. There may be some merit to the “confusion” argument: In a twist that H.L. Mencken would appreciate, 22 percent of voters support both initiatives. Gottlieb counters that people who support both measures “are conflicted—not confused. They support background checks but think I 594 goes too far by not allowing temporary loans to friends and most family members. In addition, [people worry] that it is an unfunded mandate.”
So far, the National Rifle Association, which is actively funding a “No on 594” campaign, has been strangely silent on Initiative 591—much to the chagrin of Gottlieb and his supporters. In contrast to their well-capitalized counterparts, 591’s backers have raised a mere $1.7 million. Still, Gottlieb says, “I think we’re very smart in doing this “… it was the only logical way of winning this, especially considering they had gotten so much money from those fat cats.” The lesson he’d like to teach the opposition? Don’t bring your wallet to a gun fight.