The gun-control movement in Washington, launched after the mass murder of first graders in Newtown, Connecticut, won an historic victory Tuesday as returns showed Initiative 594 winning statewide, with a top-heavy majority in populous King County.
Initiative 594, designed to close the “gun show loophole,” took 60 percent of the vote across Washington and nearly 75 percent of the vote in King County. It led from Whatcom County at one end of the state to Asotin County at the other.
The initiative would require criminal background checks for those purchasing firearms at gun shows or over the Internet. Background checks are already required for those buying guns at federally licensed firearms dealers.
“As the first state to pass this by popular vote, Washington has sent a message of hope to other states that progress is possible: We can act to prevent gun violence,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray.
“Our goal has never been about finding a single solution that will end gun violence once and for all. Instead, our goal has been to enact a sound system of common sense rules that can, by working in concert, make an enormous difference.”
Washington voters apparently avoided confusion over a rival measure backed by the gun lobby, I-591, which trailed with just 44 percent of the vote. It would prohibit Washington from enacting any gun-control measure not a part of federal law. The National Rifle Association has blocked background-check legislation in Congress.
Washington has no established rule of law for what would happen if two conflicting initiatives both pass. Backers of I-591 were blunt that their purpose was to stop I-594.
The movement that spawned I-594 began at Seattle’s Temple de Hirsch Sinai less than a week after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, its impetus coming from a cross-section of religious leaders in “unchurched” Seattle.
“After the Newtown massacre, on the night when nearly 1,000 people in Seattle marched from the Episcopal cathedral to the Roman Catholic cathedral, I said to those gathered, ‘We must not get used to this,’” recalled the Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, Episcopal bishop of Olympia.
A Methodist minister who helped create the campaign, Rev. Sandy Brown, noted that the Washington Legislature did not act on background checks. “This vote should be a lesson to legislators that people have an interest in having their communities free of gun violence.”
The movement eventually morphed into a $10.375 million campaign, bolstered with a $1 million donation from Bill and Melinda Gates and $1.9 million from Everytown for Gun Safety, the group launched by ex-New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. (Bloomberg himself gave $285,000.)
But its citizen activism was symbolized by Cheryl Stumbo. Stumbo was the victim of a killer who shot up the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle offices in 2006, slaying one woman and injuring three others. Stumbo underwent 20 operations during recovery.
Steumbo set out to collect 594 petition signatures for I-594 and kept going. She spoke for the initiative around the state. She participated with a fellow shooting victim, ex-Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, in a forum on gun violence and women.
The National Rifle Association did not mount a media campaign but worked hard to mobilize its membership against I-594. It signaled apprehension, late in the campaign, about Washington becoming a national model.
“If he (Bloomberg) is successful in this ballot initiative in Washington, we are very concerned that he will replicate this across the country, and we will have ballot initiatives like this one across the country,” Catherine Mortensen of the NRA told The Olympian.
The vote count is far from final. Washington requires only that ballots be postmarked by Nov. 4. Election results will trickle in over the next two weeks.
A victory for I-594 is, however, potentially historic. Washington is a Western state. One third of Washington households own a gun, a higher percentage than California and roughly double the figure for Connecticut.
Washington has become a national pacesetter on major social issues. Its voters legalized physician-assisted suicide in 2008. The Evergreen State voted to recognize same-sex civil unions in 2009. It voted in 2012 to legalize (and tax) recreational use of marijuana. Washington was one of the first three states where voters approved same-sex marriage.
The National Rifle Association has scored big past victories in this corner of America’s “Left Coast.”
In 1997, gun safety advocates sponsored an initiative to require trigger locks on newly purchased weapons, and safety training for new gun owners. It led in the polls. The NRA moved in, brought in NRA President Charlton Heston and spent $3.5 million on negative TV ads and mailings. The initiative ended up with just 29 percent of the vote.
Then-U.S. House Speaker Tom Foley was a longtime NRA supporter. The murder of four people at Spokane’s Fairchild Air Force base in 1994 made Foley rethink his position. The Eastern Washington Democrat supported a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles, which narrowly passed Congress.
The NRA came gunning for Foley. It spent $300,000 to defeat him and brought Heston to Seattle to raise money for Foley’s challenger. (Heston didn’t want to go to Spokane.) Foley became the first incumbent House speaker since 1860 to lose his bid for re-election.
Washington has seen its share of mass shootings in recent years.
Four Lakewood police officers were murdered in 2009 as they sat in a coffee shop. Four patrons of the popular Cafe Racer in Seattle were shot to death in 2012, with the shooter claiming a fifth victim outside Seattle Town Hall.
Seattle has suffered two school shootings in 2014 alone.
A non-student opened fire at Seattle Pacific University in May, killing one student and wounding two others before being tackled by SPU student building monitor Jon Meis.
On Oct. 24, a popular freshman at Marysville Pilchuck High School killed three of his classmates and seriously wounded two others before taking his own life.
On Tuesday night, from her home in Tucson, ex-Rep. Giffords issued a statement:
“Tonight, Washington voters showed that when Americans are given the chance to vote to close the loopholes that let guns fall into the wrong hands, common sense wins. They also showed that while the gun lobby can intimidate politicians, it’s a lot harder to intimidate America’s voters.”