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Ballot Initiatives Pit Gun Control Advocates Against Gun Rights Activists

Seth Perlman
AP Photo

There are two gun initiatives on the Washington ballot. Initiative 594 and Initiative 591 both have to do with background checks on gun buyers.

The battle over the initiatives is a classic fight between gun control advocates who say more regulation will limit gun violence and gun rights activists who fear a loss of their Second Amendment “right to bear arms.” What I-594 would do is expand background checks to include nearly all purchases or transfers of guns in Washington. Currently, gun-show and online sales and private transfers of guns do not require background checks.

The other initiative, I-591, would limit the expansion of background checks to what the federal government requires.

Supporters: I-594 Would Save Lives

Supporters of I-594, the pro-gun control measure, point out that 16 states and Washington D.C. have already done this. Initiative spokeswoman Cherly Stumbo, with the group Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, says it just makes sense. After all, she said, such checks are already done if you buy guns from federally licensed gun dealers.

“So when you go to Cabela’s or to Big 5, or to Kmart to buy a gun, you have to pass a background check before you’re allowed to do so,” Stumbo said.

Stumbo is herself  a survivor of gun violence. Eight years ago, she was one of six people shot, one fatally, at the Jewish Federation in Seattle. Naveed Haq is now serving life in prison for the crime.

After struggling through multiple surgeries, post-traumatic stress and years of therapy, Stumbo decided she wanted to do something so that others wouldn't have to go through what she went through.

“When I found out that you can legally buy guns without going through a background check, I was shocked,” Stumbo said.

She said closing the background check loophole is one way to save lives. The I-594 campaign is heavily funded by a handful of billionaires, including Bill Gates and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In TV campaign ads like the one below, the need to keep guns out of the hands of domestic abusers is highlighted.

I-591 Supporters: I-594 Threatens Gun Rights

But where supporters of I-594 see a chance of “closing a loophole,” opponents see a threat to the rights of gun owners.

Here is an online video the No on 594 campaign has on its website: 

The sponsor of the video is the National Rifle Association. The ad points out the fear some gun owners have that collecting more data on gun owners through universal background checks will make it easier for the government to to confiscate  guns.   

And Alan Gottlieb with Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which is also pushing the anti-gun control initiative I-591, says I-594 won’t really solve the problem of bad guys getting guns.

“Do criminals buy guns illegally online? Yes, there are some that do it. They also buy them in back alleys and steal them from people. A person who wants to get a weapon to commit a crime is going to get it anyway,” Gottlieb said.

Opponents of I-594 have also pounced on certain provisions in the initiative, like one having to do with the transfer of a gun to another person and exactly what that means. Gottlieb’s group is interpreting it broadly and say it’s an example of a “poorly written” initiative.

“So, if I wanted to loan you a gun to go hunting or to go skeet shooting or I wanted to loan my secretary my handgun overnight to protect myself I’ll have to run to a gun store and pay a fee for a background check,” Gottlieb said.

I-594 supporters say such concerns are overblown, that there are exemptions in the law to cover “temporary transfers," including handing your gun to a hunting buddy.

Specifics aside, Gottlieb says what much of his and other opponents opposition comes down to is a basic lack of trust in the motives of the supporters.

“I guess the problem is people who are behind I-594 are not friends of gun owners or care about gun rights whatsoever,” Gottlieb said.

The I-594 supporters, in ads, have stressed that what they are proposing would not take people’s Second Amendment rights away.

Supporter Stumbo says her goal is simple: to limit gun violence however she can.

“We don’t hold any illusions that I-594 is going to stop all gun violence in the state, but we know that it will have a strong impact,” Stumbo said.

She says if it saves just one life, it’s worth it.

I-591 was crafted by Gottlieb and other gun rights activists. Although it was filed first, thus the lower number, it’s aim is to thwart to goals of I-594 by limiting expansion of background checks.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.