A new Congress should be a new beginning. It should inspire hope for Americans disappointed by inaction and gridlock. We should feel optimistic that our freshly elected members will hear the demands of the electorate.
But we all know that’s not the case. The opening days of this new Congress have only confirmed how little we can expect from our nation’s capital.
Thankfully, the American people don’t share Congress’ commitment to futility. When it comes to issues like gun safety, the people have demonstrated that even when their representatives won’t do what’s right, there’s another path to common-sense action.
Call it a tale of two Washingtons. Ninety-six school shootings after Newtown, Congress is still too fearful of the NRA to keep deadly weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill. On the other side of the country, the voters of Washington State refused to let the NRA set the agenda. They took matters into their own hands last fall and passed a historic referendum that will close loopholes and save lives.
The successful initiative fixes an obvious and egregious shortcoming in our efforts to prevent gun violence. Federal law, which requires a background check for people who want to buy from licensed gun dealers, ignores the enormous number of sales made privately – on our streets, on the internet, or at gun shows – to buyers who could very well be domestic abusers, convicted felons, or dangerously unstable. Just 48 hours after Washington implemented its state solution to this problem, the measure successfully blocked the sale of a firearm to a man with a felony warrant.
After legislatures in both Washingtons refused to close this loophole, citizens stepped up. They should be commended for making their communities safer.
Amid a gun-violence crisis with many heartbreaking trends, this is a promising one. After the Columbine shooting, a tragedy perpetrated with guns bought through the gun-show loophole, the citizens of Colorado voted in a referendum 70 percent to 30 percent to close it. Oregonians did the same after a school shooting there, closing the loophole for private sales at gun shows by an overwhelming 62-38 vote after a similar effort failed narrowly in their statehouse. These citizens know that waiting for paralyzed legislatures to do their jobs costs lives.
In a climate with far too much partisanship, this is one of the most universally supported issues our policymakers have ignored. According to polls, 90 percent of Americans support stronger background checks, as do 84 percent of gun owners and even 74 percent of NRA members. The initiative in Washington State was a bipartisan movement, earning more votes than Democratic candidates did on Election Day. In the suburbs of Spokane, where President Obama won only 30 percent of the vote in 2012, the initiative won by a 10-point margin.
That’s because these efforts have nothing to do with scare tactics about upending the Second Amendment or taking away guns or gun rights. They are about gun responsibility. Most gun owners are responsible Americans who support responsible rules that make sure our system is smart enough to keep dangerous people from buying dangerous weapons.
Thoughtful gun safety laws work. It’s no coincidence that seven of the 10 states with the strongest laws have the lowest rates of gun deaths. The fact is, you’re decidedly more likely to be shot in states with weaker gun laws.
When our laws ultimately catch up with our values and public opinion, we’ll look back at Washington State’s 2014 initiative as one of the early indicators of an important power shift away from the notion of an invincible NRA, and toward the idea that citizens can do the important policymaking themselves if their elected leaders refuse to do their jobs.
The coalition that defeated the NRA in Washington State is eager, willing, and able to fight the gun lobby across the country – but this new paradigm reaches far beyond gun safety. From marriage equality to climate change to increasing the minimum wage, direct democracy’s power has proven a hopeful antidote to a broken Congress.
No longer content waiting for leaders to lead, the American people are making it clear that we still call the shots. Our leaders should follow or get out of the way.
Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety. Silk is campaign manager, YES on 594, Washington state ballot measure for universal background checks.