The mere threat that the National Rifle Association might try to defeat a sitting lawmaker is enough to change votes on Capitol Hill. In just the past year, the gun rights group has helped save a supportive county sheriff in Milwaukee and helped recall two gun control-backing state senators in Colorado.
But this November, some gun rights advocates are wondering why the NRA isn’t more overtly involved in the only state where voters will weigh in directly on their issues.
In Washington State, two gun-related initiatives are on the ballot this year. One, Initiative 594, would expand background checks to cover private sales and sales at gun shows. The other, Initiative 591, would prohibit the state from conducting background checks beyond those required by federal law. The two measures effectively negate each other; it’s unclear which would take precedence if they both pass.
They are the only gun-related measures on the ballot this year, but gun rights advocates who back I-591 and oppose I-594 say the NRA isn’t flexing its muscles very publicly.
“The NRA has really not been involved at all until very recently, and not in the area of spending significantly at all,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and founder of the Second Amendment Foundation. “I have no idea why. We have a coalition made up of all the gun rights groups in Washington, and they are not participating. They’re doing their own thing.”
Barron Barnett, a pro-gun rights activist, asked in a recent blog post: “Where the F*** is the NRA?!” “[T]he NRA is more than happy to take my money but then is no where to be found when things actually go sideways,” Barnett wrote.
Gottlieb, Barnett and their allies are increasingly concerned that they will be hopelessly outspent in advance of November’s election. Already, a group backing expanded background checks, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, has raised $7.3 million, according to filings made with the state Public Disclosure Commission.
Wealthy Washingtonians like Bill Gates, Nick Hanauer, Paul Allen and Steve Ballmer have all contributed heavily to the Alliance. Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, the group funded by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has contributed $1 million.
“They’re carpet-bombing the airwaves. I don’t see any way 594 is not going to pass,” Gottlieb said of the measure to expand background checks.
The groups opposing expanded background checks, by contrast, have raised only $1.3 million. Of that, the NRA has contributed $191,000 to a Washington State affiliate. That group has spent $100,000 on advertising and $31,000 on billboards, according to PDC filings.
Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA in Virginia, said the group has had two full-time staff on the ground for months. He estimated that the NRA has spent a total of $300,000 to $400,000 so far against I-594, with that number likely to grow in the final two months before Election Day. That figure doesn’t include communications with members and those who receive the NRA’s magazines and publications, he said.
“Whatever we do is going to be a grass-roots effort. We’re certainly not an organization, in contrast to Mike Bloomberg’s group, who has the ability to spend tens of millions without batting an eye,” Arulanandam said. “As recent history has shown, looking at what happened in Wisconsin in the sheriff’s race and in Colorado with the recall races, money isn’t everything. We have the grass-roots support.”
Arulanandam added that the NRA would spend more money advertising against I-594.
Public polls have shown broad support for I-594, though some of those same polls show I-591 passing, too, despite the fact that they contradict each other. There is no legal precedent in Washington State governing what happens when two opposite measures pass, and state law is silent on the question. 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, said David Ammons, a spokesman for Washington Secretary of State Kim Wyman’s (R) office. 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.
In other states where competing initiatives have passed, the measure with the highest level of support has usually been given precedence in court.
Gottlieb said the NRA is running out of time to make a difference in the race.
“I don’t know if it’s [that] they’re focused someplace else or if they’re unfocused in general, but nobody here knows,” he said. “I really don’t know what the problem is over there at all. They’ve just not been engaged.”
Arulanandam said the NRA is working hard to defeat I-594. “We’re all on the same side, and we’re working towards the common goal. We all need to work together to beat back this effort to influence an election by multi-billionaires,” he said.
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 said in a recent poll that they believed protecting gun rights was more important than controlling gun ownership. Forty percent of respondents said controlling ownership was more important.