OLYMPIA – After struggling to sway both state and federal lawmakers, proponents of expanding background checks for gun sales are now exploring whether they will have more success by taking the issue directly to voters.
While advocates generally prefer that new gun laws be passed through the legislative process, especially at the national level, they are also concerned about how much sway the National Rifle Association has with lawmakers.
Washington Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a Democrat who had sponsored unsuccessful legislation on background checks at the state level, said a winning ballot initiative would make a statement with broad implications.
“It’s more powerful if the voters do it – as opposed to our doing it,” Pedersen said. “And it would make it easier for the Legislature to do even more.”
Today, proponents of universal background checks in Washington will announce their plan to launch a statewide initiative campaign that would require the collection of some 300,000 signatures, according to a person involved in the initiative planning who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to pre-empt the official announcement.
The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility has scheduled a fundraiser in Seattle at the end of next month and hopes to have a campaign budget in the millions of dollars.
While advocates have had recent success on background checks in places like Connecticut and Colorado, they’ve been thwarted in some other states and in Congress. The U.S. Senate rejected a plan to expand background checks earlier this month, although lawmakers in the chamber are still working to gather additional votes.
Brian Malte, director of mobilization at the national nonprofit lobbying group Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said passage through Congress is ideal for a national solution and so that states with strong gun laws aren’t undermined by nearby states with weaker standards. He noted that initiative campaigns are costly endeavors.
Still, Malte said, the ballot measures are an option to consider.
Brian Judy, a lobbyist who represents the NRA in Washington state, did not return calls seeking comment about the new initiative. He has previously said the NRA would likely oppose such an effort.
Gun buyers currently must undergo a background check when they purchase a weapon from a federally licensed firearms dealer but can avoid checks in most states by using private purchases, such as at gun shows.
Washington state advocates believe polls show the public is on the side of expanding background checks further. An independent Elway Poll conducted two months ago found that 79 percent of registered voters in Washington supported background checks on all gun sales.
That wasn’t enough to shepherd the bill through the Legislature. Even in the state House, which is controlled by Democrats, supporters fell short after an NRA campaign put pressure on some lawmakers.
Pedersen said he was working with the initiative organizers on language for the proposal, and he said the Legislature would first have another chance to adopt the measure early next year. If it fails among lawmakers again, the proposal would then automatically go to the ballot, where Pedersen said he welcomed a campaign competing against groups like the NRA.
“I’m not afraid of it at all,” Pedersen said. “The public is really with us. It’s the right policy. I think it can be useful for further progress.”