Washington state saw victory this week for Initiative 594, which impose tougher background check requirements on gun purchases, of the sort that have gotten nowhere recently on the national level.
From the ballot language, the Initiative will:
apply the background check requirements currently used for firearm sales by licensed dealers to all firearm sales and transfers where at least one party is in Washington. Background checks would thus be required not only for sales and transfers of firearms through firearms dealers, but also at gun shows, online, and between unlicensed private individuals. Background checks would be required for any sale or transfer of a firearm, whether for money or as a gift or loan, with specific exceptions described below. Background checks would be required whether the firearm involved is a pistol or another type of firearm. Violations of these requirements would be crimes.
People who Washington law tries to bar from firearms ownership include, also from the Initiative language:
Washington law makes it illegal for convicted felons to possess firearms. It also makes it illegal for certain others to possess firearms, including people who: (1) have been convicted of certain misdemeanors; (2) have been issued certain types of restraining orders; (3) have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity; (4) have been found mentally incompetent; or (5) have certain criminal charges pending. It is a felony to deliver any firearm to any person reasonably believed to be prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm.
It passed with 60 pecent support. This led sources from Time to Mother Jones to The Atlantic to declare that taking it straight to the voters is the new way for gun control to succeed in an America allegedly paralyzed by over-powerful pro-gun lobbying to politicians.
Progressives who get angry at the notion of big money manipulating the electorate will probably not be alarmed to note that, with the NRA choosing to toss in only around a half a million, that Washington's initiative had pro voices outspending anti enormously—Ballotpedia has pro forces spending over $10 million, and anti only around $600,000. Enemy of all freedoms Michael Bloomberg gave $50 million overall to one of the groups pushing this initiative, "Everytown for Gun Safety." (Big donors for 594 also included Bill and Melinda Gates to the tune of a million, and Paul Allen to the tune of a half million.)
They have their eye on doing the same in Nevada in 2016, if they fail to get the legislature to pass such laws in the meantime. Colorado and Oregon saw such laws pass by initiative in the early '00s, but that strategy had gone into abeyance, largely due to lack of anti-gun funding, which Bloomberg and his operation has helped correct.
David Frum pointed out some of the historical ironies in the gun control context of this happening in Washington:
The passage of 594 takes on extra meaning because Washington state was the place where the gun lobby scored the electoral victory that supposedly proved its invincibility, the defeat of House Speaker Thomas Foley in his own district in 1994. Foley, a longtime supporter of gun rights, had helped pass two gun restrictions in 1993 and 1994: the Brady Bill restricting some handgun sales and the temporary assault-weapons ban, the latter inspired by a gun massacre at Spokane's Air Force base that killed four and wounded 23. Then-NRA President Charlton Heston came to Foley's district to campaign against him. Foley's defeat seemed to prove forever the invincibility of the pro-gun cause.
Initiatives may well prove to be a successful tack for gun controllers again in the future, more's the pity. While money does not equal victory in these sorts of contests, it behooves civil rights groups dedicated to the Second Amendment to take these efforts more seriously in the future.
Such a strategy won't work everywhere, naturally, as see this week Alabama voters approving by 70 percent Amendment 3, which, as the Alabama Media Group's Al.com reports:
The amendment was introduced to the state legislature by Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia), and it specifies that the right to bear arms is a fundamental right for citizens of the state of Alabama.
It will require 'strict scrutiny,' the highest level of judicial review, for any restriction of that right.
Background checks may seem mild, but they are the sort of regulation that can easily end up destroying people's lives for doing something inherently innocent but for the law: peacefully transfering ownership of their lawful property to someone who, in the overwhelming number of cases, will not use that property to harm anyone else.
At best, such background checks are a purely ceremonial way to block the (in almost all cases) innocent from being able to own vital means of self-defense, and shouldn't be taken lightly by supporters or opponents. Things that leave people open to arrest are very serious, and merely ignoring government paperwork requirements in sales of property that, again, in the overwhelming number of cases are never used to harm the innocent, shouldn't be the cause of throwing someone in prison or imposing onerous fines on them. (A first offense under 594 will be a gross misdemeanor; each subsequent offense a class C felony.)