Voters in Washington State are poised to pass a sweeping package of gun-safety laws next Tuesday. And in these dark political times, the campaign features some dynamics that might give progressives some hope for the future.
The “Safe Schools, Safe Communities” measure, Initiative 1639, would raise the legal age for buying military-style long-arms from 18 to 21 and impose a 10-day waiting period for such purchases. It would require gun owners to take a safety course and extend the state’s already rigorous background-check system for handgun ownership to the kinds of semi-automatic rifles that are often favored by mass shooters. The measure would also require law enforcement to review those background checks annually to make sure that gun owners continue to be law-abiding citizens after they pass, something that California and Hawaii do now for all firearm owners and Kentucky does with concealed-carry permit holders.
Perhaps most importantly, it pairs the right to own guns with the responsibility on the part of gun owners to help assure the public’s safety. I-1639 requires them to store their weapons safely and makes them liable for charges if one of their guns gets snatched and used in a crime (either misdemeanor or felony charges depending on the nature of the crime). A 2016 study by researchers at Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health found that fewer than 20 percent of gun crimes were committed by the lawful owners of the guns used. Thirty percent of the guns used had been reported stolen; for the remainder, researchers were unable to determine whether they had been stolen or loaned to the perpetrators.
The campaign is the latest effort of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a Washington-based nonprofit advocacy group. The most visible faces of the Yes on I-1639 campaign are two 17-year-old African-American student activists, Niko Battle, a senior at Kamiak High in Mukilteo, Washington, and Ola Jackson, a senior at Rainier Beach High School. And that may help broaden the movement against gun violence; as Gary Younge wrote for The Nation in 2016, when “national gun-control advocates come to the fore and make the case for the kind of common-sense laws that would keep more Americans safe,” they often focus on suburban-school massacres. But the reality is that “most people who are shot dead do not die in mass shootings—and most children and teens who are shot dead are not that young and not that white.”
Battle told me that on the same day that Nikolas Cruz killed 17 people at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, another young man closer to home had planned a similar massacre. He had reportedly flipped a coin to decide whether to shoot up his own school or lay siege to Kamiak High. The plot was foiled only when the kid’s grandmother became alarmed and alerted authorities.
Battle said he’d been active in gun-violence prevention since his sophomore year, and this past April, he and some other students formed a nonprofit organization called We Won’t Be Next Seattle to promote last spring’s nationwide student walk-out to protest gun violence. “We wanted to keep it going beyond that,” he told me. “Right now, we really see ourselves as a youth arm of the [movement]. And as a group of students that was supporting what the [Alliance for Gun Responsibility] was doing, we also wanted to change the narrative in the gun-violence-prevention community from something that was centered around mass shootings and the way gun violence affected majority-white communities, to also exploring, examining, and hopefully finding ways to mitigate its impacts on communities of color and other marginalized communities.” (I ended our interview by telling him that I look forward to voting for his presidential campaign in 2036.)
Organizers hope that the measure, along with a high-profile initiative to enact a carbon tax, will boost youth turnout in a cycle that’s crucial both nationally and in the Evergreen State, where Democrats are trying to hold onto slim majorities in the state legislature. (There are also three Democratic women running in competitive races for open US House seats.) A recent poll found that 59 percent of Washington voters supported the measure, versus 34 percent who oppose it. Voters aged 18 to 35 favored I-1639 by a 61-23 margin.
Renee Hopkins, the CEO of the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, told me that her group has “been working on not just making sure that Initiative 1639 passes, but also that voters who support it know how the candidates in both their local and federal races actually stand on gun-violence prevention. We believe that people running on this issue can win, and that it helps them win, and we’re hoping to see that play out this year.”
The campaign for the ballot measure has been driven by inaction by the state government. Because a handful of pro-gun Dems representing rural Washington have joined with the GOP to oppose gun-safety measures, advocates haven’t been able to accomplish much through the legislative process. “Even though we’ve had slim Democratic majorities in the state government, we have not had a gun-responsibility majority,” said Hopkins.
In March, a month after the Parkland massacre, a bill that would have raised the legal age for purchasing semi-automatic rifles to 21, extended the state’s background check requirements for handguns to military-style rifles, and implemented a number of proposals to enhance school safety died in the Democrat-controlled legislature after a handful of rural Democrats became weak-kneed under an avalanche of lobbying from pro-gun groups. At the time, State Senator Reuven Carlyle (D-Seattle) told The Seattle Times, “In terms of sheer numbers, you have to admire the impressive lobbying effort of the NRA.” Frustration over the defeat of that bill, and earlier attempts to reduce gun violence, have compelled activists to take the issue directly to the voters.
The success of ballot initiatives like I-1639 has in recent years turned Washington from a state with relatively weak gun laws to one with some of the strongest. In 2014, voters approved Initiative 594, which established stringent background checks for (almost) all gun purchases, including those between private parties, by a 20-point margin. Two years later, they approved, by an even wider 70-30 vote, a “red flag” law that empowered law enforcement to remove guns from people if a court determines they pose a high risk of violence. (See this 2017 article for more on why such laws are an important component in reducing gun violence.)
If this campaign has everything that might give progressives hope for the future—young people, including young people of color, getting fired up, the politics of guns shifting toward our side, and the issue potentially delivering rewards at the ballot box—it may also be a harbinger of how conservatives hope to use the courts to thwart progressive wins. Opponents of the measure launched three unsuccessful lawsuits to get it taken off the ballot, and activists say they appear to have held back some of their cash for further legal challenges if the measure passes.
“The gun lobby knows very well that vast majorities of people in Washington State and across the country are calling for commonsense gun laws that will protect communities and our kids,” said Renee Hopkins. “They know they can’t win at the ballot, so their approach is litigation both before something reaches the ballot and after. And the thing that’s really troubling and challenging is that they’re really looking at hampering the rights of voters in Washington State.”
“But I don’t believe they’ll have success,” she said. Hopefully, she’ll be proven right.