As voters Tuesday night approved a measure giving Washington one of the strictest gun-purchase background-check laws in the nation, both supporters and detractors were already preparing to keep fighting over Initiative 594.
In Tuesday’s vote count, nearly 60 percent of voters were supporting I-594, which would extend background checks in Washington state to private sales and transfers. The measure was winning in eight of the 10 largest counties in the state.
A competing measure, Initiative 591, which would bar the state from enacting any background checks more extensive than federal law, was being rejected by 55 percent of voters in the initial count.
Based on turnout projections by the state, it’s estimated that about half the total ballots have been counted.
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Cheryl Stumbo, citizen sponsor of the initiative and a survivor of the 2006 Jewish Federation shooting in Seattle, said the I-594 campaign “has shown Americans that a citizen movement can act to reduce gun violence if our elected leaders won’t.”
“This movement is here to stay,” she told supporters at an election-night rally.
The background-check campaign, headed by the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, raised more than $10 million, including $3 million from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s advocacy group, Everytown for Gun Safety.
Two of Washington’s wealthiest couples — Bill and Melinda Gates, and Steve and Connie Ballmer — each donated more than $1 million to the campaign. Investor Nick Hanauer also donated more than $1 million.
But even as they toasted the passage of I-594, supporters were anticipating legal challenges by gun-rights advocates. John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said his group would help defend I-594 against any challenges.
“I think that the results in Washington tonight for 594 are overwhelming,” Feinblatt said. “We made a major commitment to it, and we will see it through to the end.”
Everytown for Gun Safety is gathering signatures for a similar initiative in Nevada, and future campaigns are being planned for Arizona and Maine, according to Feinblatt.
Alan Gottlieb, chair of the Yes on 591 campaign said he was considering legal action against I-594. He said he would lobby the state Legislature to either toss the initiative or amend it, on the grounds that it poses too many complications for law enforcement and gun owners.
Otherwise, Gottlieb said he’d advocate to include an exemption period for temporary transfers of firearms, like there is in California, which would clearly allow friends to loan one another their guns and a cap on fees for background checks.
While he didn’t concede defeat on I-591, Gottlieb admitted that, “it doesn’t look good.”
Gun-rights groups were vastly outspent. They raised nearly $2 million, primarily from Gottlieb’s Citizen’s Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and the National Rifle Association, to either defeat I-594 or support I-591.
Federal law mandates that people buying guns from licensed dealers, whether at a store, online or at gun shows, must pass a background check.
In Washington state, people looking to buy a long gun, like a shotgun or rifle, have the background check conducted by the gun dealer through a database kept by the FBI.
The database contains people who aren’t allowed by law to have a gun, such as felons, people convicted of some drug crimes, fugitives, people who have been civilly committed for mental-health issues, among others.
People buying pistols in Washington state go through an additional check conducted by law enforcement that searches additional databases, such as the State Patrol database and the state Department of Social and Health Services’ mental-health database.
But people buying guns through private sales, through classified ads or from an unlicensed dealer at a gun show, aren’t required to take a background check.
I-594 would mandate that the buyer and seller take the transaction to a licensed gun dealer, who can conduct a background check on the buyer. The initiative is worded so that transfers of guns, like a trade instead of a purchase, also require a background check.
Opponents of I-594 argue that the proposal’s language on what constitutes a gun transfer is so strict that it would criminalize people who hand each other guns in a firearms-safety course or while shooting in a backyard.
So opponents put up their own ballot measure, I-591, in hopes both measures would pass and the issue would wind up in the courts.
In last year’s legislative session, Gottlieb tried to negotiate with lawmakers and advocates trying to advance a background-check bill. But negotiations fell apart and the groups went their separate ways to craft their own initiatives.
The I-594 campaign has highlighted recent crimes where people barred from having guns, such as a felon, obtained a weapon through a private sale conducted online or at a gun show.
I-594 campaign ads also featured survivors of mass shootings, such as Stumbo and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot through the head in Arizona in 2011.
Reporters Craig Welch and Jack Broom contributed to this report. Joseph O’Sullivan: 360-236-8268 or firstname.lastname@example.org