In a recent Gallup survey, 85 percent of all Democrats and 45 percent of all Republicans still favor universal background checks for gun purchases — a fact poorly reflected by the U.S. Senate’s vote against or filibustering all components of a comprehensive gun control bill. Sixty-five percent of all adults polled in the survey disagree with the Senate, believing that background checks should be mandated for all firearms sales.
It is this support that gun control supporters are using as rationale for a new round of statewide initiatives to introduce state-based gun controls similar to those introduced recently in New York and Connecticut. In light of lawmakers at both the state and federal level being heavily swayed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), advocates believe that bringing the issue directly to the voters offer the best shot for passage.
“It’s more powerful if the voters do it — as opposed to our doing it,” Washington State Representative Jamie Pedersen (D-Seattle) said. “And it would make it easier for the legislature to do even more.”
In Washington State, universal background check proponents have announced their plan to launch a statewide initiative campaign that would collect the 300,000 signatures needed to put a gun control bill on the ballot. The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility has also scheduled a fundraiser at the end of the month in hopes of funding a million-dollar war chest. In Arizona, Arizonans for Gun Safety are currently considering a statewide initiative as well. Organizers in Oregon will not rule out a state initiative, but are currently working toward lobbying the state legislature.
State-based gun control laws are considered a last resort, as states with strong gun laws can still be flooded with guns purchased from states with weak laws — like when Virginia-bought guns show up on the streets of New York. In addition, launching initiatives in individual states is an expensive undertaking, both financially and in term of manpower.
However, Brian Malte, director of mobilization at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, argues that taking the issue to the people is an option that should be considered. “At some point, certainly decisions need to be made about what the right time is to say we take it to the people,” Malte said.
The war at home
Advocates are looking toward Colorado, a largely pro-gun state, as a model for their initiatives: Backed by a Democratic state legislature, Colorado pushed through a suite of gun control legislation which limited bullet magazine sizes, requires background checks for online and private purchases and forced consumers to pay for their own background checks.
Applying the Colorado model to other states, however, may prove tricky. An effort to expand gun control in Oregon stalled in the state senate earlier this year, and in many states, state leaders do not wish to engage in a battle they are sure they will lose. For example, Missouri State Representative Stacey Newman (D-Kansas City) has pushed for background checks with little success. She is now in opposition to a ballot initiative, even though she supports the idea of one in theory. She argues that such a fight would be exhaustively expensive and heedless in regards to its potential for success. Instead, she feels that the best course of action for the Assembly Democrats is to block and defend against any future NRA-sponsored legislation.
“We’re continually on defense,” she said.
Reaching the people
Currently, a gun buyer must undergo a background check when buying a gun from a federally licensed firearms dealer. However, private sales may be exempt from the background check requirement, depending on the state.
While the NRA has not explicitly spoken out against the use of voter initiatives, it is assumed that they are opposed to the idea. The NRA’s position has been one in which increased gun laws make no difference in reduction of gun violence, as criminals, so goes the story, will always manage to find a gun, regardless of the availability of guns with government-approved vendors. The NRA argues that gun laws will instead punish lawful gun owners by denying them their Second Amendment-given right to bear and use firearms and will ignore the problem at hand, which is the lack of adequate psychiatric care in this country.
The NRA rarely mentions, however, that former President Ronald Reagan was the one who struck down Jimmy Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act of 1980, which restructured and strengthened federal community health care programs by forcing cooperation between local, state and federal governments. Reagan’s 1982 Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Block Grant offered the states block grants to manage mental health care at the state level, but at 30 percent less than 1980 levels. By 1985, the federal government only covered 11 percent of the state agencies’ budget, forcing massive program cuts. This has led to a current availability of psychiatric care in America — psychiatric hospital bed space is currently on par with 1955 levels.
Many politicians feel no real pressure to support gun regulation because, as there is a large pool of support for regulation, very little of that supports translate into votes. In an April Gallup poll, only 4 percent of the population thought that gun control was the most pressing issue facing the country today: the economy came in first with 24 percent of those polled. While some senators are facing a backlash for voting down the gun bill in the U.S. Senate, most Republicans feel safe in knowing that their opposition may have prevented them from being “primaried” by a NRA-backed opponent.
“A lot of these people live in a world very different from the world lived in by the people proposing these things,” former President Bill Clinton said in January. “I know because I come from this world.”
“The way the Obama campaign won Florida, won Ohio, won this [recent presidential] election by more than projected was the combination of technology, social media and personal contact,” Clinton continued. That’s “the only way that our side will ever be able to even up the votes in the midterms and as these issues come up, really touch people and talk to them about it.”