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After failing to win in the state Legislature,
activists took the first formal step Tuesday toward letting voters decide whether to enact stronger gun laws in the aftermath of recent tragedies.

The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility filed an initiative in Olympia that would require criminal-background checks for almost all firearm sales and transfers — a proposal that goes even further than a bill that died in the Legislature earlier this year.

But with polls indicating broad public support and $1 million already raised, supporters said they are confident of victory.

“The people are ready to enact this common-sense policy to prevent felons and the dangerously mentally ill from getting guns,” said Zach Silk, who is managing the campaign.

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Supporters will need to collect some 246,000 valid signatures by January for the initiative to go to the Legislature next year. If lawmakers do not accept it, it will go to the ballot in November 2014.

Background checks are already required for sales from licensed gun dealers.

The proposed law would extend that mandate to private sales, including online transactions and purchases at gun shows. In any case, the seller would have to physically go to a dealer and pay for a background check.

Dealers would be required to follow the same process as if selling the gun themselves.

A few transfers would be exempted, including for antique weapons, gifts within the immediate family, situations where there is imminent danger and transactions related to a law-enforcement officer’s job.

Noting that background checks are quick and that 98 percent of state residents live within 10 miles of a gun dealer, Silk argued the law would make it “more difficult for bad guys to get guns,” while not burdening the good guys.

But gun-rights activists were quick to label the proposal as an unnecessary financial and time burden on law-abiding firearms owners.

Alan Gottlieb, of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, said his group could support a reasonable background-check proposal — but not this one.

Gottlieb called the new proposal “overly restrictive by a longshot.”

The National Rifle Association, which typically opposes new gun restrictions, did not respond to a request for comment.

It is unclear how fiercely that group and others will fight the initiative.

Supporters, though, are expected to be well financed.

A kickoff fundraiser two weeks ago at The Westin Seattle brought in just more than $1 million from 1,200 attendees, according to initiative spokesman Christian Sinderman.

That number represents the totality of the group’s fundraising, as initial contributions went toward the luncheon event, Sinderman said.

At the luncheon, Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility co-founder Nick Hanauer, a wealthy venture capitalist, said he decided to get involved after a Seattle shooting last year killed the mother of one of his son’s classmates.

Gloria Leonidas was killed by Ian Stawicki, who also gunned down four people at Café Racer before taking his own life in May 2012.

Local supporters are also hoping for support from national gun-control groups that have been energized by the school shooting in Connecticut last December that killed 20 children and six educators.

The executive director of one of the nation’s biggest groups, New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, came to Seattle for the initiative’s kickoff and said afterward the group would support the ballot measure as much as possible.

That could help avert a repeat of 1997, when a Washington state initiative to require trigger locks on handguns and training for owners failed overwhelmingly.

This time, Silk said, “we expect to win.”

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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