Religious and political leaders on Monday launched a campaign to get an initiative requiring background checks on private firearm sales on the ballot in November 2014, igniting an 18-month, multi-million dollar battle on one of the country's most divisive issues.
The coalition, including Snohomish County Sheriff John Lovick, decided on an initiative after lawmakers in Olympia and Washington, D.C., failed to enact the change even as polls show overwhelming public support in the state for it.
"The citizens have made it very, very clear that we should do all we can to keep guns out of the hands of people who should not have them," Lovick said in an interview before the formal announcement of the initiative at an event in Seattle's Town Hall.
Several speakers made clear frustration with legislative inaction is fueling this pursuit.
"We will no longer wait," said Rabbi Daniel Weiner of Temple De Hirsch Sinai. "We will not wait for another Café Racer, or another Sandy Hook. The time has come for sensible violence protection measures."
The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility will spearhead the undertaking. As of Monday, leaders had not finished writing what will be an initiative to the Legislature.
Once they begin circulating petitions, they'll have until Jan. 3 to turn in signatures of at least 246,372 registered voters. State election officials recommend handing in at least 325,000 to allow for invalid ones.
The Legislature can adopt the measure as written with a simple majority -- thus nullifying the need for a vote -- or refuse to act and in that case it will appear on the November 2014 ballot. Lawmakers also can write an alternative measure to put on the ballot alongside the initiative.
This is the route the pot legalization measure traveled in 2012. And it is the same path that measures dealing with food labeling and initiative reform are taking this year.
Lawmakers never seriously considered adopting any of those measures. But a strategist for the alliance said it might be different with universal background checks since the state House nearly passed such a bill earlier this year.
"We have a lot of allies in the Legislature," said Christian Sinderman of the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. "We've felt all along that an issue with this much public support deserves another shot there."
Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, a sponsor of the background check bill, said he fully expects voters will make the decision.
"There wasn't the political will this year," he said. "I don't necessarily think anything is going to change between now and next year."
Absent from Monday's line-up of speakers was Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington CeaseFire, which is the oldest statewide gun control organization.
But he said in an email the group's leaders are "generally supportive" of the approach though they'd rather do an initiative directly to the ballot this year, or next, and bypass lawmakers completely.
"We are concerned with Olympia mucking things up with an alternative initiative," he wrote.
Leaders of two gun rights groups had little to say Monday.
"Since we haven't seen any language, we're really not in any position to comment," said Dave Workman, spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. "The devil is always in the details, so at this point, we're skeptical about what they may propose."
Joe Waldron, chairman of the Gun Owners Action League of Washington, said it's too soon given that Gov. Jay Inslee is pressing for a background check bill in Olympia in the special session and President Barack Obama is pushing Congress to act on a slew of gun control proposals.
"It would appear the Seattleite gun control gang is acting a bit prematurely," he said. "Whatever they decide, we will respond accordingly."
Waldron's group had banked $130,535 for political action as of April 7, according to records of the state Public Disclosure Commission.
The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility was started by a group of Seattle activists in February as a grassroots lobbying organization. It began with a $50,000 contribution from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer who intends to write many more checks before this fight is over.
Through the end of March it had spent $85,000 to lobby state legislators on the proposed background check bill, according to state records.
Soon the group will morph into a political committee with Zach Silk managing the initiative campaign. Silk, who earned $11,000 in March, directed last year's campaign to preserve the state's gay marriage law.
Initiative promoters' chief weapon right now is polling conducted earlier this year which found nearly 80 percent support conducting checks on the backgrounds of people buying weapons in a store or at a private gun show.
Those great poll numbers can deceive, as they did with Initiative 676 in 1997.
Before that election, the measure, which sought to ban sales of handguns without trigger-locking devices and require handgun buyers obtain a license, enjoyed wide support.
But it lost by a whopping 71 percent to 29 percent. Voters rejected it by a 3-to-1 margin in Snohomish and Island counties and it failed narrowly in King County as well.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org
Language for an initiative must be submitted to the Secretary of State then reviewed by the Attorney General who will prepare a title and summary for the ballot.
Supporters will then have until Jan. 3 to turn in valid signatures of at least 246,372 registered voters. State election officials recommend handing in at least 325,000 signatures to allow for invalid ones.
Once submitted, lawmakers can respond in one of three ways:
They can adopt the initiative as written, in which case it becomes law without a vote;
They can reject or refuse to act on it, in which case it will be placed on the November 2014 ballot; or
They can draft an alternative measure and place it on the ballot alongside the initiative.
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