Remember initiative 522? The ads, the articles, the rhetoric about labeling genetically modified foods that choked newspapers and airwaves last fall? The millions of dollars in contributions from out-of-state special--interest groups that thrust Washington into the center of a nationwide conversation about the public’s right to know what it’s eating? The misinformation, the lawsuits, the backbiting? Ah, those were the days…
That was just an amuse-bouche compared to the four-course rancor over gun rights that’s about to be served up here between now and November. That’s when voters will decide the fate of two opposing state initiatives that could end the local debate over the infamous “gun show loophole” and set a course for the rest of the country.
The prelude to the drama yet to come was the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, that killed 20 children and six adults. Somber conversations at Christmas parties led a coterie of Seattle’s civic heavy hitters to form the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a well-funded advocacy group supporting state legislation that would mandate background checks for all gun sales, including those between private parties. “Sandy Hook required everybody to look in the mirror and ask, ‘What have I done to prevent tragedies like these?’” says Zach Silk, who’s managing the alliance’s campaign.
But last April, after two universal -background-check bills died in the legislature—the 11th and 12th to do so since 2000—the group shifted focus, vowing to mount an initiative campaign to do what Olympia couldn’t. And in light of an Elway poll released the previous month, showing that 79 percent of Washingtonians support expanded background checks, it seemed an initiative would have been the better play from the start. “We feel good about going directly to the people,” says Silk. “It is clear that on this issue, the legislature is broken.”
Within weeks of the alliance’s announcement, though, Bellevue’s Second Amendment Foundation—a gun-rights group with national pull, whose founder, Alan Gottlieb, makes more than 300 TV and radio appearances per year—filed its own initiative, one that would prevent the state from passing background-check legislation tougher than the feds’. Gott-lieb insists he’s not opposed to the idea of universal background checks. Instead, he has a problem with the database of gun owners that would be created by the process. Sales through licensed dealers are filed with the state, making it easier for law enforcement to trace guns used in crimes. But that database, Gottlieb says, is exactly what causes many to buy from private sellers: “They don’t want their right to privacy violated.”
The very fact that voters will find opposing initiatives on the same ballot makes Washington’s impending gun control debate unique. (Should both by some fluke win, Washington will have two diametrically opposed laws on the books—until, that is, the legislature works to “harmonize” them or litigation invalidates one or both.) And while Silk alleges that the Second Amendment Foundation’s decision to file its own initiative—rather than simply campaign against the alliance’s—was a ploy to confuse voters, Gottlieb says he was merely trying to give voters a choice. Expect confusion nonetheless: The initiative favoring universal background checks is numbered 594; the anti–background checks initiative is 591.
The surest sign that we’re in for a long year, though, comes when considering the money involved. The pro- and anti- campaigns in 2013’s GMO initiative accepted their first contributions last March and raised a combined $30 million. Money for the gun initiatives—which, remember, are on the 2014 ballot—began rolling in last May and totaled nearly $2 million by mid-November.
In other words, a lot can happen between now and this fall to those numbers that showed so many Washingtonians supporting universal background checks. Just ask the faction that backed GMO labeling, which watched the initiative fail: Polls showed two-thirds of the state actually favored labeling—less than two months before the vote.