POLLS HAVE consistently shown that the vast majority of Americans favor the expansion of background checks for the purchase of firearms. That hasn’t much mattered to Congress or lawmakers in some states, who, in obeisance to the gun lobby, have refused to enact — indeed, even consider — this and other sensible reforms. Public sentiment, though, is what gun- control advocates are counting on as they open up a promising new front in the fight for needed protections.
Instead of looking for action from politicians too easily bullied, they are going straight to voters with ballot measures focused on combating gun violence. Four states — Maine, Nevada, Washington and California — will have gun-control initiatives on ballots in the Nov. 8 election. It is believed to be a record number that signals a shift in the gun-control movement away from a Washington-centered effort that has proved fruitless. The failure of Congress to enact bipartisan gun reforms in the wake of the slaughter of schoolchildren at Sandy Hook Elementary School — and the success of the marriage- equality movement in building momentum from the states up — has inspired the state-by-state effort. And already there has been success with Washington state voters in 2014 giving overwhelming approval to a ballot measure requiring broader background checks for gun sales.
Advocates who led that Washington grass-roots effort are back this year with Initiative 1491, which seeks approval of a law that would allow families and law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily suspend a person’s access to firearms if there is documented evidence that an individual threatens harm to themselves or others. Similar legislation, in place in Connecticut, California and Indiana, gives families, often the first to see signs of trouble in those threatening suicide or violence to others, a lifesaving course of action. In Maine and Nevada, voters will be asked to close the loophole on criminal background checks on gun purchases by extending them to all gun sales, including gun shows and online sales, with exceptions for family, hunting and self-defense. California’s initiative, sponsored by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, would implement a raft of laws, including background checks for ammunition purchases and a system for confiscating guns from felons who are prohibited from owning them.
Not surprisingly, the National Rifle Association has come out in full force to try to quash the measures, so it’s difficult to predict the outcomes. But the fact that these measures managed to get to the ballot — requiring tens of thousands of signatures from voters — is a demonstration of their broad support and the new muscularity of the movement for gun control.