SATURDAY, NOV. 23, 2013

Editorial: New gun duel awaits Washington voters if Legislature fails to act

Back in 1997, actor Charlton Heston turned up in Spokane and commanded Washington residents to vote no on a gun-control initiative. Most complied, but not before a combined $4.5 million was spent on B-movie-quality “public education campaigns.”

Initiative 667 – or 666, as the celluloid Moses called the “evil” and “devilish” measure – would’ve mandated trigger locks on pistols and safety tests to gain a license.

Well, get ready for more histrionics, because Washington voters next year will probably face a double feature: It looks like two gun-related initiatives are headed for the ballot.

Initiative 594 would require the kind of background checks for private gun sales that are required of sales by licensed dealers. Supporters turned in more than 250,000 signatures in October, and they still have until Jan. 3. The required number of certified signatures is 246,372.

Initiative 591 would prevent the state from requiring background checks that the federal government doesn’t require. The effect of this measure would be to nullify I-594. Proponents turned in 340,000 signatures Thursday.

Remember that hangover you got from the dueling liquor initiatives (1100 and 1105)? This could be another double-shot, and for the same reason: the failure of the state Legislature to do its job.

A bill resembling I-594 was introduced in the last legislative session. It called for a background check on private sales, with the goal of keeping guns out of the hands of people with criminal or mental health histories. Stores already have to perform such checks. Would-be gun purchasers who can’t or won’t expose themselves to a check can log on to a website, contact a seller, and arrange a transaction. It’s as simple as buying a tricycle off Craigslist.

Last spring, when the bill was considered, national polls showed that 90 percent of Americans supported such background checks. Still, there weren’t enough lawmakers to pull the trigger. If they had, the coming initiative battle would be clear-cut for voters: Do you want to keep the law? Instead, there will be unproductive confusion.

It’s still possible for lawmakers to handle the issue because both initiatives were crafted in such a way that lawmakers can vote to adopt or reject during the next session. But the history of hot-button issues like this is for “leaders” to do nothing, which would put both initiatives on the ballot.

Confused voters generally just say no, and that could be the strategy of the I-591 proponents. A double no is a victory for them – still no background checks. Voters turned down both liquor initiatives the first time around and did the same when faced with competing measures on the medical malpractice issue in 2005.

Whether it’s liquor, guns or tort reform, we believe issues are best handled at the legislative level, where hearings are held and bills can be amended to fix flaws. We elect people to tackle difficult issues, not to deflect them.

If both measures land on the ballot in November, it’s a sign that the Legislature has cut and run.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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