The duel between gun-control initiatives is not just a high-stakes clash between philosophies; it also pits a measure that’s short and sweet against one that features in-depth detail.
Initiative 591, supported by state and national groups who tout their support of the Second Amendment, is one of the shortest measures to make the ballot in recent memory. Its 191 words would bar any illegal seizures of guns and wouldn’t allow Washington to change its background check laws unless there’s a new national standard.
Initiative 594, supported by state and national gun-control groups, is a detailed attempt to extend background checks beyond those currently placed on purchases at licensed dealers. It takes nearly 5,800 words, with definitions and timelines for those checks, the kind of detail opponents are trying to use in an effort to defeat it.
Campaigns for I-594 and against I-591 have attracted more than $8 million in contributions, much of it from some of the state’s wealthiest high-tech families and a national group associated with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Those for I-591 and against I-594 have raised about $1.5 million, with the bulk coming from groups like the National Rifle Association, Washington Arms Collectors and the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.
The federal government already requires background checks on sales by licensed firearms dealers at stores. That creates what supporters of I-594 refer to as a “gun show loophole” for sales from private owners who sell guns out of their homes, through Internet connections or at tables at a gun show. Some of those guns are sold to customers who would fail a dealer’s check because of a past felony, domestic violence conviction or mental health commitment.
The extent of that problem is much debated, with I-594 supporters producing almost daily examples of felons who buy guns in parking lots or by placing want ads, and I-591 supporters pointing to statistics that indicate most criminals get guns by stealing them or buying them from other criminals who aren’t going to follow any new laws.
Some supporters of I-591 also say they aren’t against expanded background checks but don’t want a mish-mash of laws that vary from state to state. Supporters of I-594 reply that a national law would require action by Congress, which has deadlocked over firearms laws – and most other legislation.
Opponents take issue with ‘transfers’
One major bone of contention in the campaign over I-594 is a requirement for background checks on “transfers” – certain types of loans, gifts or barter transactions. The goal, said Kate Downen, of Everytown for Gun Safety, is to make sure people can’t evade checks through barter or trade. Opponents say it’s so broad it could require a background check when lending a gun to a friend while hunting or during target practice.
Everytown, a group backed by Bloomberg and financier Warren Buffett, offered testimonials of police officers in other states that have similar provisions who say that hasn’t happened.
Dave Kopel, who teaches law at the University of Denver, agreed police aren’t going to waste time on people who loan a hunting rifle or target pistol to a friend without a background check. But the initiative defines transfers broadly and then sets out exemptions that don’t include certain types of loans, so anything not spelled out would be illegal, said Kopel, who is also research director at the Independence Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank that has received grants from the NRA.
A firearms instructor, Kopel said the first thing he teaches students is to obey the law; that creates a problem because passing around his guns in a class anywhere but a firing range technically would be illegal. The institute challenged transfer provisions and other parts of Colorado’s background check law in federal court; it lost the civil suit at trial earlier this year and plans to appeal.
Zach Silk of the I-594 campaign said sponsors had to come up with a definition of transfer when spelling out terms in the initiative but contends opponents are “inventing claims” in an effort to confuse voters. In any legal challenge, he contends, courts would look to the intent section of the measure, which says it is designed to keep guns from people “who are prohibited from possessing them.” That doesn’t mean a hunting buddy or a neighbor who briefly uses the owner’s gun.
Confiscation also hotly debated
The argument over transfers is not the only one in which the facts are subject to hot debate. The first section of I-591 would forbid government agencies to “confiscate guns or other firearms from citizens without due process,” which opponents say is already guaranteed by the U.S. and state constitutions.
Protect Our Gun Rights, which is supporting I-591 and opposing I-594, frequently cites the confiscation of firearms in and around New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. That did happen when the city was under a state of emergency – how extensive it was is in dispute – but proponents don’t mention that Congress essentially banned a repeat of such seizures the next year with legislation known as the Vitter Amendment. That legislation is attached to the Homeland Security bill and denies federal disaster aid to any state or local government that confiscates guns during an emergency.
Alan Gottlieb, of the pro-591 campaign, said that’s merely a restriction on funding and “you can’t always trust government to follow the laws.”
The campaign also raises the specter of warrantless searches of gun owners’ homes if the initiative doesn’t pass; Gottlieb cites several assault weapon bills introduced in recent years as proof that could happen. Some versions of those bills called for a sheriff to conduct annual inspections for any assault weapon owner to make sure the gun was stored safely.
Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, the sponsor of the 2010 bill and co-sponsor of the 2013 version, said that was “stock language” from national gun-control groups and would have been dropped if he or other supporters had read the draft closely before introduction. It was removed from the bills, which didn’t come to a vote in 2010 and didn’t even get a hearing in 2013, and never would have passed constitutional muster, said Kline, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union.
“It never will pass, nor should it,” Kline said. To use it to support 591 is “a bozo argument,” he added.
Voter confusion could play a role
Early polls showed that voters were confused about the two initiatives, with many saying they planned to vote for both whether they support or oppose stronger gun control. But supporters of I-594, which tended to fare better in polls over the summer, should be wary of surveys that show them far ahead. A gun control initiative in 1997 that required trigger locks be sold with handguns enjoyed strong early support, but wilted under a fall onslaught from gun-rights groups and lost by better than a 2-to-1 margin.
If voters approve both, the state Supreme Court will have to determine what to do about the inconsistencies in the initiatives.
But competing initiatives on the same topic can create enough confusion for voters that they vote no on both. Two initiatives to take the state out of the retail and wholesale liquor business failed in 2010, although a single proposal passed easily the next year.
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