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Published: Friday, March 15, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Background check expansion may go to voters

OLYMPIA -- It's a good bet voters will decide if Washington gun laws are toughened by requiring background checks on private firearm sales.
But it's not a guarantee.
Gun control supporters might push an initiative directly to the ballot this fall or next after the disappointing defeat of a universal background check bill in the state House this week.
Or they could take a different path in which they ask lawmakers again in 2014 seek to expand the background check law. If they don't, then they go to voters.
"Everything is on the table," said Christian Sinderman, consultant for the newly formed Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility which spent tens of thousands of dollars lobbying for passage of the failed legislation, House Bill 1588.
"We have to decide whether now is the time to move forward or to wait a while," he said Thursday. "We want to be in the best position to win. No one is interested in a symbolic effort."
House Democrats wrangled over House Bill 1588 for days in their caucus but Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, could not cement together 50 votes for passage before a Wednesday deadline. The bill had the support of one Republican, Rep. Mike Hope of Lake Stevens.
Gun buyers undergo a background check when they purchase a weapon from a federally licensed firearms dealer. House Bill 1588 sought to extend such checks to cover private gun transactions.
Pedersen said he isn't involved in the strategy-setting by the alliance. If the group goes for an initiative this year, he said he would want them "to put something on the ballot that is both good policy and is also winnable."
Opponents of the bill are in a "wait-and-see" mode on the likelihood of an initiative this year. Resurrecting the legislation, they said, is technically possible no matter how politically improbable it seems.
"We're not certain the bill is entirely dead," said Dave Workman, communications director for the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. "While we've heard hints of a possible initiative, we're not sure anyone actually is deciding to do it."
A ballot battle is anticipated, sooner or later.
"They certainly have the money for it. They certainly have the political will for it," said Joseph Waldron, chairman of the Gun Owners Action League headquartered in Bellevue. "I'm not saying 'Bring it on'. If it happens, we'll be ready to respond."
There are three main options for those pushing for universal background checks, each freighted with certain advantages and disadvantages.
Whatever step is taken the alliance, a creation of a group of Seattle activists, would likely morph into the chief campaign organization. It launched in February with a $50,000 contribution from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and he'll need to write a lot larger checks if the effort is to succeed.
Pushing an initiative this November could capitalize on a well of public support that, according to various polls, is hovering above 70 percent.
There is a risk. It is an off-year election, which means fewer voters and a more fiscally and socially conservative electorate. Higher profile elections in Democrat-laden cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett would offset that trend, Sinderman noted.
Those great poll numbers can deceive as they did with Initiative 676 in 1997.
Before that election the measure, which sought to ban sales of handguns without trigger-locking devices and require handgun buyers obtain a license, enjoyed wide support.
But it lost by a whopping 71 percent to 29 percent. Voters rejected it by a 3-to-1 margin in Snohomish and Island counties and it failed narrowly in King County as well.
"If there is a lesson from that experience it is you really need to understand all of its impacts and you have to assume the NRA and their allies will say or do anything to protect their market for gun sales," Sinderman said.
Hope, who didn't live in the state then, said it was his understanding the measure tried to do too much and voters felt it went too far.
The bill crafted this year in the House will not suffer the same fate if it is put before voters because "it does not overreach," he said.
A second option is to wait and do a citizen initiative in November 2014. This would give backers more time to prepare a campaign and raise the money to conduct it. Plus, they could count on a larger and potentially more philosophically liberal electorate.
A third possibility is to follow the path of the marijuana legalization measure with an initiative to the Legislature. Lawmakers, many of whom must run for re-election next year, would be given an opportunity to approve it rather then let it go to a vote.
"The 2014 Legislature may not want it on the ballot," Pedersen said.
Timing is not a concern to Hope.
"I think they'll win now. I think they'll win then. I think they'll win either year," he said.
He and Pedersen said they thought the NRA made a mistake in opposing the House bill. Gun rights supporters had a voice in the process of revising the bill. They won't get a say with an initiative.
"They should have signed on to the bill because what goes to voters will be stronger than (House Bill) 1588," Hope said.
Given the political popularity of requiring background checks on private gun sales, it will be difficult ground to defend, Pedersen said.
"Unless the polls are really wrong, universal background checks will be the law in Washington state," he said.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

Story tags » Crime, Law & JusticeLegislatureSocial Issues

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