Fundraising for a gun-control campaign in Washington state is outpacing opponents by a ratio of 4-to-1, fueled by contributions from former Microsoft Corp. executives Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer and Jon Shirley.
They and other supporters have given about $3.4 million to the effort to impose criminal background checks on those who buy firearms online or at gun shows. A competing gun-rights initiative has garnered about $1.1 million to require buyer background checks only when the seller is a firearms dealer, the current federal standard.
“Maybe technology-oriented people are a little more comfortable with being disruptive,” said Rich Barton, who founded travel website Expedia Inc. while working at Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft and donated $42,500 to the gun-control measure. “We can’t get our legislatures to reflect the will of the people, and so if we need to take our case directly to the people via a ballot initiative, so be it.”
U.S. billionaires are increasingly using their wealth to champion causes at the polls. California hedge-fund founder Tom Steyer successfully backed a 2012 measure to close a corporate tax loophole, while Susan Buffett, daughter of Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Warren Buffett, is supporting Chuck Hassebrook, a Democrat running for Nebraska governor.
In Washington state, they are taking on the National Rifle Association, the largest U.S. gun lobby, which has seen few defeats in its effort to beat back gun restrictions in legislatures and the courts.
Washington’s dueling initiatives represent the only electoral clash over gun purchases in November.
Gates and his wife Melinda donated $50,000, Ballmer and his wife Connie gave $580,000, and Shirley gave $50,000, according to state Public Disclosure Commission data. Gates and Ballmer also donated to a campaign in Washington state to fend off an attempt to repeal a same-sex marriage law in 2012.
A Gates family spokesman, John Pinette, declined to comment on the gun issue. Ballmer didn’t respond to an e-mail request for comment, while Shirley didn’t reply to a telephone call seeking comment.
Eighteen other donors who identified themselves as Microsoft employees gave a combined $6,510, according to the data. Christina Pearson, a company spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Other contributors to the gun-control measure include Nicolas Hanauer, co-founder of Second Avenue Partners, a Seattle-based venture capital firm, who gave $385,000; Brian McAndrews, CEO of Pandora Media Inc., the Oakland, California-based Internet radio service, $10,000; Hadi Partovi, a former Microsoft employee and CEO of Seattle-based Code.org, a nonprofit education group, $12,500; Lloyd Frink, co-founder of Zillow Inc., the Seattle-based real-estate website, $15,000; and Tom Alberg, co-founder of Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group LLC, a venture-capital firm, $5,000.
“Money talks in politics and, unfortunately, the wealthy political elite in Washington support gun control,” said Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Protect Our Gun Rights coalition in Bellevue, the campaign for the gun-rights measure. “We’re going to be outspent. We recognize that.”
His proposal also would prevent the state from confiscating firearms without due process of law, which includes court orders and warrants.
“It’s blindingly obvious that everybody who buys a gun ought to get a background check,” said Barton, the Expedia founder who said he’s a gun owner. “This is a small step toward protecting ourselves as citizens against gun violence that is perpetrated by people with records or mental states that might get caught by a background check.”
In addition to technology executives, Jeffrey Brotman, chairman and co-founder of Costco Wholesale Corp. in Issaquah, Washington, gave $10,000 to the campaign. Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a gun-control group co-founded by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, contributed $30,000 to the effort. Bloomberg is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.
The NRA so far has given $25,000 toward a campaign to defeat the gun-control measure. NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam didn’t respond to an e-mail and telephone call seeking comment.
President Barack Obama in June said the failure to enact tougher gun-control laws was his greatest disappointment in more than five years as president. Congress should be ashamed for not standing up to the NRA’s political clout, he said after a shooting at a high school in Troutdale, Oregon.
The Washington gun-control initiative drew support from 70 percent of 506 state voters surveyed in a poll released July 15 by Seattle-based Elway Research Inc. The gun-rights measure garnered support from 46 percent, according to the survey, which had a margin of error of plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
Gun initiatives are rare, with only seven dealing primarily with guns out of the 2,432 state initiatives on ballots from 1904 to last year, John Matsusaka, executive director of the Initiative & Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Washington voters rejected a 1997 measure requiring trigger locks.