Poll: Washington voters support competing gun initiatives


Boxes of petitions for Initiative 594 sit in the Secretary of State office in Olympia, Wash., on Oct. 9, 2013, (Elaine Thompson/AP)

If the election were held today, Washington state voters would back an initiative to broaden background checks on gun purchases. They would also vote to prohibit the state from conducting more background checks than the federal government requires, raising the possibility that voters could ratify two ballot initiatives that stand in direct contradiction of each other.

Gun control advocates and gun rights supporters both succeeded in collecting enough signatures to qualify both measures. Initiative 594 would require criminal background checks for anyone buying firearms at gun shows and online. An Elway Poll showed 70 percent of Washington voters backing the measure, compared with just 22 percent who opposed it.

Gun rights backers are pushing a competing ballot measure, Initiative 591, which would prohibit background checks on firearm sales unless a national standard is required.

Current federal law does not require background checks on firearms sold at gun shows or online, and efforts to change background check laws went nowhere in 2013.

The Elway poll showed 46 percent backed I-591, while 42 percent opposed it. About one third of voters say they will vote for both measures.

Both measures qualified as initiatives to the legislature. If initiatives to the legislature don’t pass, voters have a chance to weigh in the following November. Both the state House and Senate declined to act on the competing measures, leaving it up to voters to decide.

Sixty-one percent of poll respondents said they favored making background checks more restrictive, a sharp decline from the 79 percent who said the same thing last year, just months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Despite its liberal reputation, Washington has a long libertarian streak. Voters batted down a ballot initiative in 1997 that would have required trigger locks to be sold along with handguns, and 50 percent of Washingtonians told the Elway Poll they believed protecting gun rights was more important than controlling gun ownership. Forty percent of respondents said controlling ownership was more important.

Republicans were far more likely to say protecting gun rights was more important than controlling ownership, while Democrats said the opposite. In an April survey with nearly identical results, Elway found independents said protecting rights was more important by a 55 percent to 34 percent margin.

Republicans strongly support the measure to prohibit additional background checks without federal guidance, while Democrats are evenly divided. Big majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents all support the measure to expand background checks at the state level.

But what if the conflicting initiatives both pass? State officials aren’t exactly sure. David Ammons, a spokesman for Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R), said there is neither a relevant statute on the books nor case law that gives any clues. The state has had competing initiatives on the same ballot before, but both initiatives have failed in every previous instance.

The state legislature has the power to repeal, amend or suspend newly-passed voter initiatives by two-thirds majorities, or by simple majorities after two years, Ammons said. But mustering such a super-majority on an issue as touchy as gun control would be difficult, if not impossible, for either side. More likely, the state Supreme Court would have to sort the mess out.

Gun control advocates have raised more money than gun rights supporters, according to public campaign finance data. The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the main pro-background check campaign committee, has pulled in $2.7 million, led by big contributions from wealthy venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and his wife Lenore, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, and Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the gun control organization run by Michael Bloomberg.

Protect Our Gun Rights, the leading backer of the measure to limit background checks, has raised $789,000, its public filings show. Much of that money has come from the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, a Bellevue, Wash.-based group allied with the Second Amendment Foundation, and the Gun Owners Action League.

The National Rifle Association has kicked in $25,000 to a separate political action committee. The NRA spent heavily in 1997 to defeat the trigger lock initiative.

The Elway Poll surveyed 506 registered voters between July 8-11, including 45 percent over cell phones, for a margin of error of +/- 4.5 percent.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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