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The Gun Safety Movement’s New Strategy Has Its First Success With Voters

Washington voters just passed one of the strictest gun background check laws in the nation. You can expect to see more initiatives on state ballots in coming years.

The Gun Safety Movement’s New Strategy Has Its First Success With Voters
[Photo: Flickr user Ray Dehler]

For decades, the NRA has infamously wielded an outsized sway on politicians, turning out its passionate base to vote pro-gun control candidates out of office and spending millions lobbying against legislative measures.

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Now, a gun control movement energized by a tragic wave of mass shootings is pushing forward a new strategy: skipping the politicians and going straight to voters.

At the polls yesterday, voters in Washington decisively approved ballot measure I-594, which will institute one of the nation’s toughest background check systems in a state where just last week a high school student fatally shot three of his classmates. The measure passed with 60% of voters by this morning, with returns from just half of voters counted. Advocates expect the victory margin will increase as more votes roll in from the Seattle area.

The passage could mark a milestone for the movement, which is being led by recently formed national groups like Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America (formed by a mom after the Sandy Hook shootings in 2012). Working together with the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, Everytown says it spent $4 million on the campaign and turned out thousands of volunteers to educate voters. The initiative is the first to fully close the loophole that helps buyers avoid background checks online and at gun shows. Similar legislation failed to pass the state legislature in Washington twice in the last two years.

“The lesson from I-594 is that while the gun lobby may have its way with the state legislature, it can’t have its way with voters,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, a group formed earlier this year from former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, said in a call with reporters today. Bloomberg has poured his own money into battling the NRA in states around the nation this election season.

The groups believe that if the measure can pass in Washington, it can pass almost anywhere, noting that the NRA spent more in Washington than any other state. About a third of households own guns in Washington, similar to national averages. And I-594 didn’t just do well in urban areas; it passed in many rural counties where more gun owners are located, says the Washington Alliance’s campaign manager Zach Silk. An opposing measure put forward by the gun lobby, I-591, was also defeated at the same time.

Next, gun control advocates soon plan to submit the requisite signatures for a background check ballot initiative to make Nevada’s ballot in 2016. Other states that could also next be a focus for the ballot initiative strategy include Arizona and Maine. Over time, in a way similar to the gay marriage movement, they hope to use ballot initiatives for background checks in many states where the issue is tied up in the state’s legislature.

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“Polls consistently show that 90% of the American people support background checks,” says Feinblatt. “What was so significant about the results in Washington yesterday was that it proved the polls are right.”

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About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.

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