The Gun-Control Movement Is Learning How to Win

In Washington state, advocates passed some straightforward controls—by bypassing politicians terrified of the NRA and going straight to voters.

Rebecca Cook/Reuters

It was not only President Obama and his Democrats who suffered a historic rebuke yesterday. So did the National Rifle Association.

It’s been a rule of American politics for two decades that the gun lobby always wins. It wins in Congress, it wins in the state legislatures, it wins in the courts. Not even the Sandy Hook massacre could shake its power: President Obama couldn't even get a vote on new gun-safety measures, let alone enact them. Instead, in 2014, the right to carry a weapon in public became law in the last holdout state, Illinois. Concealed carry is now the land of the land from sea to sea.

Last night, the voters of Washington state broke the rule. They adopted by a nearly 60 percent margin Initiative 594, a measure extending background checks to all weapons sales and transfers, with exceptions only for transfers between family members and temporary loans for sporting or self-defense purposes.

The passage of 594 takes on extra meaning because Washington state was the place where the gun lobby scored the electoral victory that supposedly proved its invincibility, the defeat of House Speaker Thomas Foley in his own district in 1994. Foley, a longtime supporter of gun rights, had helped pass two gun restrictions in 1993 and 1994: the Brady Bill restricting some handgun sales and the temporary assault-weapons ban, the latter inspired by a gun massacre at Spokane’s Air Force base that killed four and wounded 23. Then-NRA President Charlton Heston came to Foley’s district to campaign against him. Foley’s defeat seemed to prove forever the invincibility of the pro-gun cause.

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.

That message is one of the most important pieces of news to emerge from the 2014 cycle. When Michael Bloomberg and other deep-pocketed donors pledged themselves to gun reform after Sandy Hook, some observers imagined that he and they would waste their resources besieging the NRA on battlefields of the NRA’s choosing: state legislatures where intensely committed minorities can thwart even large-but-less-engaged majorities. The success of 594 in Washington shows the way to a very different political contest, in which majorities can make themselves felt over and against small pressure groups. Look for more such initiatives in 2016—a year when, with a president on the ballot, the electorate will be both larger and less conservative than in 2014.

594 is not the turning of the tide, of course. But it’s a harbinger of a possible new politics of guns, in which the nation’s gun rules will no longer be written by a fanatical and fearful minority of a minority.