The biggest gun-control fight next year is shaping up as dueling ballot initiatives in the state of Washington, a continent away from the Connecticut elementary school where a mass shooting ignited a national push for tougher firearms laws.
It’s the only place in the nation where both sides are seeking to use the ballot box at once. It’s one of a handful of areas where national activists will press for gun-control laws after a measure to expand background checks on firearms buyers failed in the U.S. Senate. Other battlegrounds will include states known for hunting or ranching, including Minnesota, Oregon and Nevada, according to interviews with advocates on both sides.
“You will see the states make a big push on this legislation,” said Brian Malte, national policy director at the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a Washington-based organization that supports screening buyers. “It would provide sustained momentum to tell Congress to finish the job.’”
Both sides saw victories this year, with 28 states passing laws lifting firearms restrictions and 21 plus the District of Columbia expanding them. New York, which had tight gun laws, made them stronger while Alabama, with looser regulations, made access easier. Seven states passed laws permitting guns in elementary schools.
“We as a nation are split on this idea, and that is reflected in the way that different states deal with this issue,” said Harry Wilson, the director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. “That explains the stalemate on the national level.”
The focus on states by gun-control activists underscores their belief that it would be next to impossible to pass a sweeping federal law in 2014, an election year. That’s testing the resolve of a movement galvanized a year ago Dec. 14 when Adam Lanza mowed down 26 people -- including 20 first-graders -- in less than five minutes at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The school has since been knocked down and boards cover the front entrance -- and two garage doors at the half-million dollar home that Lanza, 20, shared with his mother, whom he also killed. Residents were reluctant to talk to a reporter about the shooting and the ensuing debate, saying emotions are still raw. That hasn’t stopped some from trying to change laws.
“If this tragedy had to happen, Newtown was the place because people here will keep fighting,” said Linda Manna, who owns an antique store in the town.
National support for gun-control measures slipped to 49 percent in a CNN poll conducted from Nov. 18 to Nov. 20, the lowest since 1996. In January, a month after the Newtown shootings, 55 percent said they supported stricter gun laws.
The gun-rights side is poised for another victory in Ohio, where a law that would eliminate the need to retreat before using deadly force for self-defense -- known as “stand your ground” -- was approved last month in the House of Representatives. The National Rifle Association, whose 5 million members make it the largest U.S. gun lobby, didn’t respond to inquiries about its focus for next year.
On the opposite side, gun-control advocates can build on success in places like Colorado, which passed a background-check law this year, said Arkadi Gerney, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a Washington-based group that supports stronger firearms laws. Two Colorado lawmakers were recalled by voters for backing the bill.
Proponents of gun rights see their ability to withstand the fallout from Newtown as a victory.
“The kitchen sink got thrown at gun owners and nothing stuck,” said Alan Gottlieb, the founder of the Bellevue, Washington-based Second Amendment Foundation. “They took the best shot they had. Now, it’s an election year and gun owners are energized to make changes.”
Gottlieb’s state is heading for a brawl in 2014, with groups on both sides pushing opposing ballot measures: One would expand background checks and the other would prohibit checks that are more restrictive than federal rules.
The pro-gun side has collected 340,000 signatures, far exceeding the 246,000 required, Gottlieb said. The gun-control side, backed by venture capitalist Nicholas Hanauer, turned in 250,000 and is still collecting names, said Christian Sinderman, a spokesman for the Seattle-based Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility.
About 200 gun-control advocates convened by the alliance met yesterday in Seattle in a conference room near the Space Needle for a meeting that was part pep rally and part seminar.
Organizers cautioned they had an uphill battle in a state where legislators failed this year to expand background checks.
“We have an excellent progressive tradition, but we also have a western tradition,” Zach Silk, the association’s director, told attendees.
That dichotomy was illustrated in a T-shirt worn by attendee John Pearson, 66, that read, “I own a gun. I’m against nincompoops reckless and armed.” Pearson said he hoped to persuade organizers to avoid demonizing all gun owners.
“This message cuts across the culture,” he said. “The responsible gun owners aren’t the problem -- it’s the crazy, careless people.”
Neighboring Oregon is gearing up for another legislative push on expanding background checks to Internet sales and private transfers, said Penny Okamoto, executive director of Ceasefire Oregon, a Portland gun-control group.
Her group faces a gun-rights movement energized by national reaction to the Connecticut massacre.
“We beat them every year for 15 years,” said Kevin Starrett, executive director of Oregon Firearms Federation, based in Canby, south of Portland. “I’d be foolish to be relaxed. I’m not. But as a result of what happened in Newtown, we’re bigger than we’ve even been.”
Advocates of gun control in other states, such as New Mexico, are waiting to see whether the 2014 elections change the composition of their legislatures.
“We will see small victories,” said Patrick Davis, the executive director of ProgressNow New Mexico, an Albuquerque-based gun-control group.
This year, the state came within a “hair’s width” of requiring background checks for transactions at gun shows, Davis said.
Since then, New Mexico lawmakers saw voters in neighboring Colorado recall the state Senate president and another legislator who’d supported gun control, said Davis.
“There were some real electoral implications in Colorado,” Davis said.
The recalls occurred after the two sides spent a combined $3.5 million, including about $350,000 from Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which was co-founded by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
“The mayor has said that he spent $10 million in the last election stepping his toe in the water,” said Mark Glaze, director of the mayors group. “We may find out what the whole foot looks like this time.”
The NRA also has money to put behind its agenda. The Fairfax, Virginia-based organization spent $17 million on legislative action such as lobbying and $33 million communicating with members in 2011, tax records show. The group’s political committees spent more than $20 million in 2012 federal elections, Federal Election Commission records show.
Firearms advocates favor state laws that allow guns in more places, such as churches, schools, bars and casinos, and measures to permit gun owners to carry concealed weapons without a permit, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
A new strategy is to use ballot measures to amend state constitutions, said Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney with the center. In 2014, Alabama voters will determine whether to strengthen firearms protections in the state constitution, following Louisiana, which did so this year.
Efforts are still under way to press for another vote on background checks in the U.S. Senate next year. The group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America plans to meet today with Senate President Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, to ask him to bring up the issue again. In April, the chamber was six votes short of passing a federal requirement on background checks. The U.S. House hasn’t acted on a similar measure.
“It may take an election cycle to really hammer out where the debate is going,” said Gerney of the Center for American Progress.