Gun vote: Four ballot initiatives seek more restrictive firearms policies

If ballot initiatives in Maine, Nevada, California, and Washington State succeed, they could signal an emerging shift in American public sentiment regarding gun control.

Robert F. Bukaty/AP
Judi Richardson, a citizen sponsor of a ballot initiative to require background checks for gun buyers, wears wrist bands bearing the names and places of victims of gun violence, at her home in South Portland, Maine, on Oct. 26. Ms. Richardson's adult daughter Darien (in framed photo, l.) died after being shot by an intruder in Darien's apartment in 2010 in Portland, Maine.

Voters in four states will decide on Election Day whether to enact more stringent firearms laws, as gun control activists outspend gun rights groups in an aggressive policy-shaping strategy that some have likened to the nationwide push for same-sex marriage.

Unlike past elections, there are no state initiatives to expand gun rights anywhere in the United States. The only ballot measures are designed to keep firearms away from people deemed dangerous in Maine, Nevada, California, and Washington State. Those pushing for the additional regulation hope to demonstrate Nov. 8 that there is a shift in American sentiments favoring a more restrictive approach to gun ownership.

"My guess is they will be successful, and you will see voters in different geographies and backgrounds who are willing to stand up for stronger gun laws," Zach Silk, who is helping to lead the gun control campaign in Washington, told the Associated Press. 

Seattle entrepreneur Nicolas Hanauer, who employs Mr. Silk as an aide, donated more than $1 million to the initiatives in Washington, Maine, and Nevada, finding common cause with Everytown, a group founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Everytown, the biggest spender in Maine and Nevada, has put millions into its advocacy for background checks on nearly all gun sales and transfers.

Majorities in both major political parties have voiced support for certain additional restrictions on gun sales, with 88 percent of Democrats and 79 percent of Republicans saying they approve of requiring background checks for gun shows and private sales, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month. But opponents contend new laws could weaken their Second Amendment rights, when rigorous enforcement is what America needs.

"We have enough gun laws on the books, we don't need more," Dianna Muller, a National Rifle Association member and police officer in Tulsa, Okla., told the Monitor. "We need more prosecution of the existing gun laws. We are not enforcing them." 

Expanding background checks would make it too easy for officials in Washington to generate a gun registry, which is information with which the federal government should not be trusted, Officer Muller added. 

If the initiatives in Maine and Nevada pass, then half of Americans would live in the 20 states requiring universal background checks on gun sales, Everytown President John Feinblatt said.

Some of those advocating for the ballot initiatives cite the horrors of gun violence as their motivation. Judi Richardson of South Portland, Maine, has advocated for the initiative in her state after her adult daughter was fatally shot during an unsolved home invasion in 2010. The investigation stalled because the handgun used to kill her daughter was purchased without a background check, and the seller did not know the buyer's name.

Ms. Richardson gathered signatures to help secure a spot on the ballot for her state's proposal.

"I do call it a movement," she said. "People are really getting fed up with all the violence."

Democratic California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is leading the campaign for a law to require background checks and state permits in order to buy ammunition – a law that would be the first of its kind – said the time has come for public policymakers to respond to the spree of mass shootings that have become all to common in recent years.

"We have the capacity to turn this around," he told Reuters, unveiling a plan to ban high-capacity magazines and improve data-sharing between state and federal government systems.

Lieutenant Governor Newsom said the NRA had effectively intimidated state lawmakers, but the lobbying group would be unable to intimidate voters.

"That's why we're bringing this directly to the public," Newsom said.

Amy Hunter, NRA spokeswoman, said Newsom's initiative would erode the Second Amendment rights of lawful gun owners.

"California illustrates the true gun control agenda, which is the ultimate confiscation and banning of firearms," Ms. Hunter said in a statement.

On the federal level, Congress has blocked attempts to impose universal background checks, even after 20 elementary school students were gunned down in their Newtown, Conn., classroom in 2012 – a series of events that prompted Mr. Bloomberg's state-by-state strategy.

If the Democrats win big on Nov. 8, perhaps winning both the White House and a Senate majority, then they could put pressure on lawmakers to make changes to federal law as well, gun control groups say.

While some seek to reduce gun violence by means of legislation, others have sought to reduce gun suicides – the leading cause of gun deaths in the United States – with a more collaborative approach. Since everyone agrees that suicide is harmful to individuals and their families, that argument could be a good point of common ground.

"If you want to reach gun owners, it doesn't make sense to go at them with an antigun agenda," Catherine Barber, a suicide prevention researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told the Monitor. "It makes more sense to work within the culture of gun-owning groups."

Material from Reuters and the Associated Press was included in this report.

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