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Dueling gun initiatives on path to divisive campaigns


Campaigns for dueling gun initiatives on this year’s ballot could bring national attention to Washington state, and contribute to an ongoing debate about gun laws across the United States.

Initiative 594 would enact statewide criminal background checks for all firearm transactions. That’s in direct conflict with Initiative 591, which would prohibit passage of any law expanding background checks unless a national standard is created. I-591 also prohibits confiscations of guns without due process.

Both measures were given a public hearing this session, but it’s doubtful the Legislature will take further action, said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, head of the House committee that heard testimony on the initiatives.

“No, I don’t think anything’s going to happen, but you never know when things can change,” she said.

Lawmakers have the option of not taking action on initiatives to the Legislature. Jinkins said it doesn't make sense to waste time on a measure that doesn't have enough support in the House to pass.

Campaign preparation

The Citizens Committee to Protect the Right to Keep and Bear Arms is a member of the pro-I-591 campaign. Dave Workman, communications director for the organization, said the state has some of the best firearm laws in the country, not just because they are less restrictive, but because they have strongly written language to defend an individual's right to bear arms.

“It’s a matter of dealing with a constitutional affirmed and protected civil right,” Workman said. And he said the state constitution includes arguably stronger language regarding the right to bear arms than the Second Amendment.

Christian Sinderman, spokesperson for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said his organization is ready to run an aggressive campaign for I-594.

“We’re building what we hope is a long-term movement for gun responsibility.”

He said the stark contrast between the proposals presents a clear choice for citizens. Because of the unique situation with dueling initiatives, he said there is potential for both sides to receive significant out-of-state funding.

Lobbyists for the National Rifle Association have spoken against I-594 during a public hearing this session, but the organization has not taken a position on I-591 yet.

Both initiatives received significantly more than the 246,732 signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

In a recent Gallup Poll released last month, American's dissatisfaction with gun laws and the politics surrounding them increased from 50 percent to 55 percent, while satisfaction decreased from 47 percent to 40 percent. Last year, only five percent of Americans favored less strict gun-control laws, but that statistic has risen to 16 percent.

In 2013, national efforts to mandate universal background checks were unsuccessful, but New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Colorado, passed their own laws for background checks on all sales. This year, eight states are considering similar legislation.

Campaign contributions

The campaigns promise to draw a lot of attention and money, with a combined total of more than $2.2 million raised already.

The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which backs I-594, has raised about $1.5 million, more than twice the $717,000 raised by the Protect Our Gun Rights committee in support of I-591, according to the Public Disclosure Commission.

 Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition of mayors seeking to expand gun-control laws based in New York, donated $30,000 to the Yes on I-594, which has been the only significant out of state contribution. The organization was founded in 2006 by Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City.

Nicolas Hanauer, a Seattle-based venture capitalist, contributed $265,000, making him the largest donor to the Yes on I-594 campaign. Bill and Melinda Gates each added $25,000 in contributions as individuals.

Most of the funding for the Yes on I-591 has come from in-state donors. The Gun Owners Action League, Washington Arm Collectors and Citizens Committee to Protect the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, pro-gun organizations based in the state, are the largest contributors to Yes on I-591. Together, they have donated more than $600,000.

The previous record for money spent on a “yes” campaign in support of an initiative was more than $20 million on I-1183 to privatize liquor sales, set in 2011. Most of the financial support for the campaign came from Costco, which donated about $15 million.

Todd Donovan, a Western Washington University professor of political science who studies elections, said it would be difficult to eclipse the previous fundraising record. He said it depends on whether grassroots organizations and political-interest groups decide to funnel their resources into Washington.

What happens if they both pass?

Washington state would be in a novel position if both measures pass. The state Constitution does not outline a process to follow in that situation.

 

Donovan said when rival initiatives are on the same ballot, voters are more likely to reject both proposals, which is what happened in two previous elections when this situation occurred.

In the 1993 election, there were conflicting initiatives, I-601 and I-602, on limiting state-revenue collection and spending. In 2005, provisions in two initiatives on medical-malpractice law were in direct opposition. I-330 was sponsored by doctors; I-336 was sponsored by lawyers.

When the issue came up in 1993, Christine Gregoire, who was then state attorney general, issued an opinion regarding conflicting provisions. She said if both measures passed, the Legislature would have to act to resolve the differences. But if they did not, then the state Supreme Court would have find a new process to choose between conflicting provisions.

Katie Blinn, director of legislative policy for the Secretary of State’s Office, said people have firm beliefs on an issue like gun control, and it’s likely voters will be decisive in picking one of the proposals over the other.

She said the Legislature could try to reconcile the differences, but it would be difficult because there is little room to negotiate between two initiatives that take completely opposite positions.

Sponsors could also challenge the legality of the measures, and if one of them was declared illegal, the remaining initiative would be accepted as law.

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