For the past two weeks, Tanya Metaksa, chief lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, has forsaken the marble corridors of the other Washington to work the asphalt byways of this one.
For the gun lobby, there is no bigger battle in 1997 than a handgun-licensing initiative going before voters in Washington state next month.
Backed by a Congress that has blocked new restrictions on personal firearms, gun supporters have found the nation’s capital to be a friendly place of late. But it is another story in the states.
The Washington state measure will test an article of faith among people who want stronger gun laws: that circumventing a Congress that is afraid of the gun lobby and going directly to voters is the only way to pass meaningful legislation.
The campaign in the second-most-populous state in the West comes at a time when gun opponents are moving on two new fronts. One is an effort in the states to regulate guns like any other consumer product, such as hair dryers or toys. The other involves bringing legal or public-opinion pressure on gun manufacturers, as President Clinton demonstrated last week with the announcement of an agreement by most handgun makers to include child-proof trigger locks on new weapons.
The Washington state proposal, Initiative 676, would require hand-gun owners to pass a safety test to obtain a license to possess such a gun - neither a test nor a license is needed now - and it also would mandate that all pistols, new or used, be sold with trigger-locking devices.
Although at least 15 states have passed a requirement for safe storage or trigger locks, only Connecticut has a package of licensing and safety laws similar to what Washington is proposing. No other Western state ever has come close to passing anything like Initiative 676.
“If we were to pass an initiative of the people that bypassed the gun lobby and did so in a Western state, it would be truly historic,” said Tom Wales, a federal prosecutor who is co-chairman of Washington Citizens for Handgun Safety, the group sponsoring the initiative.
Polls show that if the vote were taken today, the measure likely would pass by a wide margin.
But the National Rifle Association has made it clear that it will not be bypassed in this fight. The association has said it will broadcast as many as five television advertisements for every one broadcast by supporters of the initiative.
“We will spend whatever it takes to defeat this attack on personal freedom,” Metaksa said. “The battle has certainly shifted to the states, and our members want us to be there fighting the fight.”
Big money is coming not just from the gun lobby. On the other side of the issue, Bill Gates, a co-founder of Microsoft whose estimated $35 billion net worth has made him the richest man in the world, has donated money and time on behalf of the initiative.
Gates; his wife, Melinda; and his father, William Gates, have contributed $185,000 to the initiative, or nearly one-third of all the money raised by supporters. Bill Gates, a Seattle native who gradually has been elevating his political profile, even went so far as to gather signatures in the successful effort that put the initiative on the ballot.
But the financial assistance from the Gates family also has worked to the advantage of the other side of the issue. In fund-raising solicitations, gun supporters have made an appeal for populist sentiment, saying the initiative is “heavily financed by big-money Seattle area elitists.”
Washington is heavily urban with a lingering Western tradition of gun ownership. By state government estimates, nearly 1 in 5 people among its 5.5 million residents owns a handgun.
Washington is one of eight states where more people are killed by guns every year than in auto accidents. According to projections by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, most states will have more deaths by gunfire than in car accidents by 2003.