Washington State Could Vote for More, and Less, Gun Control, Simultaneously

PHOTO: A convention goer examines weapons in the exhibit hall at the143rd NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 26, 2014.Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images
A convention goer examines weapons in the exhibit hall at the143rd NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits at the Indiana Convention Center in Indianapolis, Indiana, on April 26, 2014.

The National Rifle Association -- the nation’s largest gun rights organization -- is sounding the alarm with voters in Washington state with a new online ad, warning that a ballot initiative there might seriously curtail gun rights.

“There’s no question in my mind that the goal is collecting a database of gun owners,” Robin Ball, the owner of a Washington state gun shop and shooting range, says in the slick, 7-minute ad.

“It’s time for us, the American people, to say stop,” says Ozzie Knezovich, the sheriff of Spokane County.

But the Washington state fight isn’t just over the vote on increasing background checks. The pro-gun side also has a measure on the ballot, and there’s a chance both could pass, opening the door to a potentially heated debate on gun control and an unprecedented quandary for the state Supreme Court.

Initiative 591 would prevent the state legislature from enacting background check laws unless there is a federal standard, which doesn’t currently exist. It would also prevent the government from confiscating firearms without due process.

In the other corner is Initiative 594, requiring background checks on all gun purchasers except on antiques or an immediate family member’s firearm. The language of that initiative is actually based on a bill that failed to pass in the divided Washington legislature, with a Democratic House and Republican Senate.

There hasn’t been much reliable polling on the measures since summer, when an Elway poll found just under 50% in favor of I-591 and 70% in support of I-594. Both got such high ratings because just over 30% of Washington voters polled said they would vote for both measures –- even though they are diametrically opposed.

No one really knows what might happen if Washingtonians vote for more and less background checks simultaneously. Such a scenario has never happened before in state history, said David Ammons, a spokesman for the Washington Secretary of State, who administers the elections.

“We have no case law or statute dealing with this situation,” he said, adding that potential options could include punting to the state legislature to pick a winner or, more plausibly, the state Supreme Court to hear both sides’ arguments –- revitalizing an issue that’s already been heavily litigated in state government.

The leaders of both the I-591 and I-594 support campaigns said they’re focused on winning “yes” votes and will start worrying about what comes next, if need be, on Nov. 5, the day after Election Day.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Alan Gottlieb, a national gun-rights activist and head of the pro-591 campaign Protect Our Gun Rights. He noted that I-591 has the support of the largest Washington state organization representing law enforcement officials.

Zach Silk, the campaign manager for the pro-594 Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, said his group is spending time making sure voters understand the differences between the two measures.

“We are concerned about it. We’re definitely talking to voters about voting yes sand no –- we can’t take anything for granted,” he said.

Another dimension of the gun rights battle here is the influence of national spending. Gottlieb said he is frustrated because the powerful NRA has taken a neutral position on I-591 although they are actively campaigning against I-594, putting two field staff in the state and creating ads like the one released online Thursday.

“I’ll be honest, in the last couple months we stopped trying” to get the NRA more involved, Gottlieb said. “We have to run a campaign, we’re doing then best we can and if we win on 591 it will be without the NRA’s support.”

NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said the group’s attention in the state was where should be, suggesting the priority is defeating I-594, not making sure I-591 wins.

“594 is a very bad initiative and the focus ought to be on defeating what will negatively impact the law-abiding gun owners of Washington state,” he said.

One reason national groups like the NRA might not get more involved in I-591 is because doesn’t comport with Washington state law in several ways: it would put restrictions on the state legislature in anticipation of federal laws which don’t yet exist, and it is only one paragraph long, versus the 18-page I-594, which Silk said meets state law requirements to have potential new laws fit seamlessly into existing ones.

Silk called the wording of I-591 “mushy,” while Gottlieb said I-594’s length meant that “to understand it, basically you have to be a lawyer.”

National advocacy groups are helping voters grasp the differences between the two measures, but the pro-594 campaign is getting much more outside help from groups like Everytown for Gun Safety, the successor to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the organization Moms Demand Action, as well as top donors in the Washington business community.

The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility has raised more than $7.5 million, much of which came from Everytown and wealthy Washingtonians such as Bill and Melinda Gates and entrepreneur Nick Hanauer. Meanwhile, Protect Our Gun Rights has raised $1.13 million, none of which comes from the NRA, which has instead contributed $192,000 to a local affiliate’s anti-594 effort.

Erika Soto Lamb, a spokesperson for Everytown, said the battle in Olympia was the most important race for them this year. “This is the Washington that matters to us. It’s the only place where Americans will actually be asked to vote for gun safety reform,” she said.

Regardless of all the preparation that both sides in the fight are making, one thing remains clear: what happens after Election Day if both measures win remains a mystery.

“This is really different. We’re making a little bit of history,” Gottlieb said.