Will Washington Voters Expand Gun Background Checks—And Ban Them?

Oct. 24, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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