Every once in a while something good happens, something that restores one’s faith in humanity. So put your hands together for the voters of Washington state.
In the midst of the Republican midterm tsunami, 59 percent of them made history. They said “yes” to a state ballot measure that requires background checks for virtually all gun buyers. In other words, a lopsided majority of voters thumbed their noses at the gun-fetish lobby that equates freedom with unfettered bang bang.
This ballot win for gun safety reform — the first statewide referendum on guns since the 2012 Sandy Hook slaughter — is politically significant. It proves that voters are willing to do what their spineless lawmakers have so shamelessly failed to do: Defy the NRA.
Even while Washington’s voters were busy re-electing a Republican state senate, they defied the NRA by a margin of 18 percentage points. They summarily ignored the NRA’s propaganda that the ballot measure was actually “a universal handgun registration scheme” promoted by “elitists.” Propaganda like the seven-minute NRA ad, which lied that the ballot measure was really about “collecting a database of gun owners” for the purpose of “confiscation.”
The measure — officially known as Initiative 594 — didn’t have a single syllable about gun registration. The measure simply says that if you want to weaponize yourself at a gun show, or on the Internet, or via other non-licensed sellers, you first need to be checked out, to ensure that you’re not nuts or felonious. And by the way, this common-sense notion is not the province of “elitists.” It’s drawing support from 92 percent of Americans — including 92 percent of gun owners.
Most importantly, Washington state’s balloting has opened the door for ballot bids elsewhere — perhaps starting with Nevada, Maine, and Oregon. As UCLA law professor Adam Winkler says, referring to last week’s outcome, “I think it does represent a subtle shift. “What we’re seeing is a renewed effort by gun control advocates to take this issue to the voters directly.”
Six states (including Delaware) have gone the legislative route to expand background checks for virtually all buyers, but 21 states allow voters to OK laws via the ballot route. That’s an expensive and labor-intensive proposition (TV ads for the couch potatoes, signature petitions to get on the ballot), but the gun safety reform movement finally has sufficient financing and grass-roots heft — courtesy of Michael Bloomberg and his 2.5-million member group — to match the NRA dollar for dollar in a ballot campaign.
Bloomberg spent $4 million in Washington state; the NRA, sensing defeat, spent barely half a million. It didn’t even bother to boost the ballot counter-measure crafted by the gun fetishists — Initiative 590, which would’ve barred expanded background checks. The voters trounced it by a 10-point margin. Let’s hear it for “state’s rights.”
What a stark contrast to our nation’s capital. Nineteen months ago, in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, the cowering U. S. Senate refused to expand background checks via federal law — despite the polls which, at the time, showed 90 percent support for that policy. The chamber’s refusal brought to mind (my mind, anyway) this old Mark Twain quip: “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress — but I repeat myself.”
But if voters are willing on a state-by-state basis to defy the gun-fetish lobby, to end-run their quivering elected representatives, then hey, that’s what I meant at the top about renewed faith in humanity.
And here’s what an NRA spokesman said, prior to the vote tally in Washington state: “If (gun safety reform) is successful in this ballot initiative in Washington, we are very concerned that (it) will be replicated across the country and we will have ballot initiatives like this one. … That is why we are so concerned.”
The NRA is concerned. How often do we see that sentence?
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY public radio in Philadelphia. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.