Gun control initiative ordered off ballot

The crowd chants slogans and carries signs through downtown Spokane during a protest calling for gun control Saturday, Mar. 24, 2018. The March For Our Lives protests took place across the United States, with marches often led by high school aged youth. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A gun control initiative should not appear on the November ballot because the proposed changes in the law on the petitions that some 378,000 voters signed were not readable, a Thurston County Superior Court judge said.

Judge James Dixon agreed with gun-rights advocates that the size of the print was too small and the proposed changes not clearly marked.

“I have 20-20 vision. I can’t read it,” Dixon said in granting a court order to keep Initiative 1639 off the ballot.

A notice of appeal was filed within minutes after the order was drafted and signed, and will go to the state Supreme Court on an expedited process in an effort to get a decision before counties have to print ballots in early September.

The issue is not whether one agrees with the goals of the initiative, Dixon said, but whether the petition voters signed provides a true, accurate and readable version of the law as it would be changed.

“It is not a true copy, it is not a correct copy of the measure,” he said.

I-1639 would change state requirements for the purchase of semi-automatic rifles, requiring a more extensive background check and raising the age of a buyer from 18 to 21. It also would set strict requirements for safe storage of firearms in a home.

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation and one of the lead plaintiffs in the case, said sponsors were “totally irresponsible” in circulating the petitions. The lawsuit wasn’t about the underlying issue, but the process, he said.

“It cost them not only millions of wasted dollars but their credibility as well,” Gottlieb said in a prepared statement he handed out after the decision. “The initiative process is no place for deceit and deception.”

Safe Schools Safe Communities spent nearly $2.8 million to pay people to gather signatures for the initiative.

Greg Wong, attorney for the sponsors, said they “respectfully disagree” with Dixon’s ruling, contending that it goes against precedents that allowed initiatives to go to the ballot with incorrect information.

“We’re confident the Supreme Court will rule correctly on this,” he said.

Attorneys for Gottlieb and the NRA had argued state law requires an accurate and readable copy of the law that voters will be asked to approve or reject be on the back of petitions that are signed. The printed copies of petitions don’t strike-through statutory language that will be removed or underline language that will be added. Instead, it uses a system of single and double parentheses to denote changes.

Allowing I-1639 to go on the ballot after those problems would create “open season” for future sponsors to provide unreadable text, attorney Eric Lindberg said. “If this passes muster, what’s next?”

Wong argued opponents were trying to nullify the wishes of more than 378,000 people who signed I-1639, which clearly stated the purpose of the initiative on the front of the petition.

“There’s not a single piece of evidence that voters did not understand the law they signed. Not a single voter wants to take their signature back,” Wong said.

Dixon said he was sure both sides could provide voters who were for or against the initiative, but that wasn’t the issue the court had to decide.

“It is this court’s responsibility to make sure the process is accurate, that the law is being followed,” he said. “The initiative process must be vigilantly protected.”

Both sides anticipated that the loser would appeal to the state Supreme Court, and with a deadline for the printing of ballots and the state Voter’s Pamphlet looming, an expedited schedule already has been set. Sponsors will file a brief Monday arguing why Dixon’s decision should be overturned, opponents will file their brief on Wednesday and sponsors must reply by Thursday. If the court wants oral arguments, they will happen on Aug. 28.