Gun control on the ballot as activists seek reform through state initiatives
After the passion of March for Our Lives, some groups see the best hope for legislative success in states such as Washington and Oregon
Though America has seen a string of mass shootings over the past year, no gun control legislation has been passed at the federal level.
Three months after 17 people were killed and 17 injured at Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, leading to a national push for reform led by student survivors, the debate has shifted, from Capitol Hill to states across the country.
As November’s midterm elections approach, advocates of stricter gun laws hope to place the issue directly into the hands of voters. States such as Oregon and Washington will consider ballot initiatives including a ban on assault rifles and raising the minimum age for purchasing certain kinds of gun.
Activists increasingly believe the issue will be litigated at the state level, given the National Rifle Association’s strength in Washington. After all, polling has found that voters are broadly supportive of modest gun restrictions, a trend that has held since the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut in which 20 children and six adults were killed.
“It’s not surprising that people are turning to the ballot to address gun safety,” said Donna De La Cruz, a spokesperson at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a progressive group that focuses on ballot measure campaigns. “In poll after poll, common-sense gun laws are overwhelmingly popular.”
“Many politicians are too beholden to the NRA to address the gun violence epidemic,” De La Cruz said, noting that the 2018 elections will see “a classic use of ballot measures to enact important reforms that corporate-controlled legislatures are unwilling to pass”.
The ballot initiative process typically requires petitioners to secure a minimum number of signatures from registered voters, in order to force a referendum.
Efforts to pass new gun laws this way have still proved contentious. In 2016, groups on both sides of the debate poured millions into two ballot initiatives. In Maine, voters rejected mandated background checks on all gun sales. In Nevada, a similar proposal was narrowly approved, only to be blocked by the state’s Republican attorney general.
At least a dozen states have tightened firearm regulations since Sandy Hook. About twice as many, however, have taken steps to loosen gun laws.
This year, an initiative in Oregon that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines is prompting a backlash. Local officials said they received a record public response to the measure, Initiative Petition 43, during a two-week comment period. Many comments expressed opposition to the proposal; some expressed criticism over the use of the phrase “assault rifles”; others questioned the measure’s legality.
The petitioners had planned to target the 2020 elections, but moved up their plans following the shooting in Parkland.
In Washington, an initiative was mounted after legislators failed to pass legislation to expand background checks and raise the age limit for purchasing assault weapons.
Increasing the age limit for the purchase of such rifles from 18 to 21 has picked up steam since Parkland. The 19-year-old gunman, Nikolas Cruz, passed a background check that enabled him to purchase the AR-15-style weapon he used.
“There’s a lot of momentum,” Washington state attorney general Bob Ferguson told a local news channel. “I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a serious attempt made to put some combination of those proposals on the ballot because the legislature simply won’t do it. People deserve a vote.”