Activists rally at the I-1639 ballot drop event in Olympia on July 6. (Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility)

Activists rally at the I-1639 ballot drop event in Olympia on July 6. (Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility)

Judge nixes gun restriction measure, says print is too small

It now goes to the state Supreme Court to decide if Initiative 1639 will be on the ballot this fall.

OLYMPIA — A Thurston County judge Friday knocked off the November ballot an initiative imposing new restrictions on firearms, concluding the petitions, signed by 378,000 people, “did not comport” with the law.

Superior Court Judge James Dixon sided with gun-rights activists who argued petitions circulated for Initiative 1639 did not contain a “readable, full, true and correct copy of the proposed measure,” as required by state law.

It wasn’t a struggle to reach this conclusion, he said, because the print was too small and the proposed changes in laws not marked clearly enough.

“I have 20-20 vision. I can’t read it,” Dixon said. “I’m not being facetious. I simply cannot read it.”

Judge James Dixon

Judge James Dixon

It will now go to the state Supreme Court to decide whether Initiative 1639 is on the ballot this fall.

Attorneys for the measure’s sponsors, Alliance For Gun Responsibility, filed an appeal Friday. That came shortly after Dixon signed his order.

A hearing is slated for Aug. 28. Secretary of State Kim Wyman asked the court to rule before Aug. 31, as the deadline for printing ballots in time to reach overseas voters is Sept. 1.

Greg Wong, one of the alliance lawyers, said after the hearing that they “respectfully disagree with the judge.”

He said because the petitions were in “substantial compliance” with the law and opponents could show no harm as a result of the flaws, it should be allowed to remain on the ballot.

Dixon said strict compliance is the proper legal standard.

“We’re confident the Supreme Court will reverse and (voters) will have an opportunity to vote on it,” Wong said.

Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation and a plaintiff in the case, said he wasn’t surprised by the ruling. Other plaintiffs included the National Rifle Association.

“I thought we were on solid legal ground,” he said. “We are confident the Supreme Court will rule correctly on this.”

In a statement, Gottlieb said backers of the measure were “totally irresponsible” for circulating petitions they knew to be flawed.

“It not only cost them millions of wasted dollars but their credibility as well,” he said. “The initiative process is no place for deceit and deception.”

Supporters of Initiative 1639 submitted 378,000 signatures in early July. The Secretary of State’s Office determined at least 259,622 were from valid registered voters, making the measure eligible for the November ballot.

As proposed, the measure would boost the legal age for buying a semiautomatic assault rifle to 21 and apply the same background check requirements for those buyers as are conducted for purchasers of handguns.

Other provisions in the 30-page measure require that gun buyers prove they have completed a firearm safety training course, make the state verify annually that gun owners are still eligible to possess firearms, and hold owners liable for safe storage. It also imposes a waiting period of at least 10 days.

“It is the most comprehensive gun violence prevention measure that has ever been proposed in our state,” said Paul Kramer, of Mukilteo, at a July 6 news conference. “It will help save lives.”

Weeks earlier, Gottlieb’s organization sent initiative sponsors a letter warning them the petitions violated state law.

Sponsors ignored the letter. On July 27, after it was clear I-1639 had qualified, Gottlieb’s group and NRA sued.

“This challenge maintains that because the initiative petitions were incorrectly printed, there isn’t a single valid signature on them,” Gottlieb said at the time. “At the end of the day, it’s worthless paper.”

In court Friday, Dixon said he had an obligation to protect the initiative and referendum process and ensure the law is followed.

It wasn’t just a problem of tiny print. Text on the back of the petitions differed from the original text turned into the Secretary of State’s Office, Dixon noted. And sponsors did not use two common editing features — underlining of proposed new language and strike-through of verbiage to be removed.

Dixon said he wondered why they chose to do it that way even after the state’s director of elections raised concerns.

“Perhaps we’ll never know,” he said.

Wong said an inadvertent “technical error” led to a slightly different text getting printed on the back of the petitions. He argued court precedents allow for it to be upheld because it is in “substantial compliance” with the law.

“All the words are there. Nothing is missing,” he said.

Moreover, he said, no harm had occurred. There is no evidence voters were misled or didn’t understand what they were signing, Wong said.

“Not a single voter who signed a petition wants to take their signature back,” he said.

The line is clear, opponents said.

“This is so far out of substantial compliance,” said Gottlieb, standing outside the courtroom after the decision. “This is pretty major.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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