Gun control goes on the ballot

Gun control goes on the ballot
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Stymied on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures, supporters of stricter gun control measures are taking their cause to the ballot box.

Voters in four states will decide ballot measures relating to gun control this November. In Maine and Nevada, voters will decide whether to expand background check requirements to include private gun sales.

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In Washington, voters will decide whether to take guns out of the hands of people who are subject to extreme risk protection orders, which include restraining orders and people at risk of suicide.  

And in California, voters will decide whether to ban the possession of large-capacity magazines. The California measure, Proposition 63, would also require individuals to pass a background check before purchasing ammunition.

“2016 will be the year of gun sense,” said Kate Folmar, a spokeswoman at Everytown for Gun Safety, the group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “If elected leaders themselves won’t change the laws that make it too easy for dangerous people to get weapons, the American people will change them themselves.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other pro-gun organizations are only cautiously engaging in the ballot fights. The NRA is spending significantly on a ballot measure in only one state, Nevada, though it intends to mount a campaign in Maine, too. Most of the NRA’s early spending has focused on the race for the White House. 

Gun control advocates have made little progress in recent years despite a series of mass shootings. Just six states have expanded background checks in the four years since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., and Congress has rejected several gun control bills. 

“After decades of legislative and electoral defeat, the gun control lobby has resorted to buying gun control by spending [Michael] Bloomberg's billions to impose his New York style gun-control through the ballot initiative process,” said Jennifer Baker, an NRA spokeswoman. 

“He can buy his way onto the ballot but the NRA is committed to exposing his lies and defeating the gun control ballot initiatives that in fact would not prevent criminals from getting guns but instead make it harder for law-abiding citizens to exercise their constitutional right to self protection.” 

Gun control advocates in several states say they are turning their attention outside the Beltway. They hope to build momentum first by expanding background checks, then later by tackling other specific gun controls that poll well with voters. 

They compare their strategy to the fight to legalize same-sex marriage, which started in a few states before snowballing across the country. 

“Our goal is in fact a state-by-state strategy, given how intractable Congress is. It’s not unlike what you saw with the marriage equality arc,” Folmar said. “They started to build momentum state by state, and as more and more people lived in marriage equality states, momentum built.”

Washington State provides an example of the progression gun control advocates hope to see. In 2014, Washington voters passed Initiative 594 to expand background checks. Versions of that initiative were exported to Nevada and Maine this year.  

This year’s measure to limit access to firearms for people under protective orders, Initiative 1491, is modeled on legislation that has passed in states like California, Connecticut and Indiana. If it is successful, it too will be exported to other states. Stephanie Ervin, who is running the pro-1491 campaign, said she expected a similar measure to appear on the ballot in Oregon.

“It feels like we’re at a real tipping point, and folks are really engaging in the dialogue around gun responsibility issues,” Ervin said. 

Gun rights advocates, too, believe they are seeing the opening moves in a prolonged campaign by gun control backers. They say the proposals for expanded background checks are unenforceable and represent a slippery slope toward something more sinister, like gun registration.

“This is the camel getting its nose under the tent. Before you know it, you’ve got a whole camel in your tent,” said Maine state Sen. Eric Brakey (R), one of the leading opponents of the ballot measure in his state. He worries about what comes next.

“That’s when you start seeing bans on particular firearms, and then they come knocking on your door because you have a prohibited firearm that’s registered to you at your home.”

While gun control opponents say voters are on their side, several prominent Democrats in California seem to view the gun measure as a stepping stone to higher office. 

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom spearheaded the Proposition 63 campaign, a move many in the state interpret as another step toward raising his profile ahead of a run for governor in 2018. Newsom has feuded with state Senate President Kevin de Leon, himself a potential statewide contender, who helped pass similar gun control laws through the state legislature earlier this year.

The NRA has spent little energy fighting back in Washington and California. Campaign finance records show the NRA’s Institute for Legislation Action has contributed $45,000 to the Coalition for Civil Liberties, the group fighting the California initiative. 

In Washington, no formal committee has been established to oppose I-1491; the NRA spent $485,000 against the state’s 2014 background check expansion, while the pro-gun control side spent more than $10 million, a campaign mostly financed by wealthy billionaires like Bill and Melinda Gates, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer.

Nevada is the only state in which the NRA has invested heavily to defeat expanded background checks.

Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) vetoed a similar bill in 2013. This year, Robert Uithoven, a prominent Republican consultant in Las Vegas, is running the campaign against Question 1.