Yet even as politicians learned always to yield to the NRA, polls continued to show broad public support for many gun-safety measures, especially including background checks to deny firearms to felons, the mentally ill, and domestic abusers. Initiative 594 discovered a way to transform that support into a political fact. It bypassed the state legislature to lay a gun-control measure directly before the voting public. Yesterday’s vote confirmed: The polls were right. If you ask them, the voters will approve gun restrictions.
Initiative 594 is a complex piece of legislation. Its text fills 18 pages, many of them technical changes to existing state statutes. Pages 2 through 6 are filled with a series of definitions to make the reader’s eyes glaze over. That didn’t stop voters. Neither did the presence on the ballot of a competition measure that actually relaxed background checks beyond even their present gelatinous condition. Washington voters passed this gun measure even as they reelected a Republican governing majority to their state Senate.
Initiative 594 was decisively leading in the polls even before the October 4 shooting at Washington’s Marysville-Pilchuck High School in which four students lost their lives, including the 15-year-old shooter. So strong was support for the initiative—nearly 2 to 1 through most of the fall—that the NRA effectively conceded the contest, with the result that supporters of the initiative outspent opponents by a margin of $10 million to barely half a million. (Initiative spending in Washington must be disclosed, but is not otherwise limited.)
This rare retreat by the NRA sets an example of how gun safety might be extended state-by-state in the years ahead. The initiative’s effect is modest and compelling. Subject to a few carefully delineated exceptions (gifts between family members, loans of firearms to a person in imminent danger of bodily harm, genuine antiques that use ammunition no longer commercially sold, and so forth), any sale or transfer of any weapon must comply with the same terms and conditions that apply to a sale by a licensed gun dealer. In other words: no more gun show loophole. Gun shows may continue. Non-licensed venders may continue to offer guns at gun shows. But if a non-licensed vender finds a buyer, vender and buyer must proceed to a licensed gun dealer and submit the buyer’s name for a background check before the sale can be legally completed.
What’s the case against such a measure? The scenarios conjured by gun advocates to swing undecided voters sounded absurdly far-fetched: What about the woman who is being stalked—but who isn’t literally in imminent harm—who can’t get to a gun dealer for some reason to pass the background check herself—and wants to borrow a weapon from a friend? They rallied their base with a straightforward message of paranoia, that any measure to deny weapons to the mentally ill is the first step on the slippery slope to the total confiscation of all privately owned firearms, on the way to the imposition of a totalitarian regime across the United States. It’s troubling that such a message can rally one-third of a state’s voters. But the message of 594 is that while one-third may be enough to scare a congressman, it’s not enough to halt a well-funded voter initiative.