After Washington State School Shooting, Activists Look to Election Day

Passage of an expanded background-check measure would make Washington the rare bright spot for proponents of gun control.

The school shooting in Washington state Friday that killed two students and sent a northern Seattle community reeling is also galvanizing support for a November gun-control ballot measure there, strategists said.

Passage would make Washington state the rare bright spot for proponents of gun control, who have seen a string of failures since 2013, when Congress couldn't muster the votes for a gun-control measure reacting the Newtown, Conn., killing that that left 28 dead including the shooter.

A little background: Washington state activists from different camps put competing gun measures on the ballot this year. One would require universal background checks in the state. The other would do the opposite and prohibit any change to the state background-check rules until a national standard is developed.

Kelly Evans, a Seattle-based political strategist, said the background check question was already “solidly ahead and likely to pass comfortably” prior to the Friday shootings, while support for the opposing measure was slipping.

“If it has any political impact, this terrible tragedy is likely to speed up that trend,” said Evans, who isn't working on either side of the issue.

That's as long as some of the hardcore gun-control proponents can show some restraint. Venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, who contributed more than $1 million to the Washington state background check initiative, caused a firestorm Friday afternoon. Hours after the tragedy, he sarcastically posted on social media, “We need more school shootings!!! Vote yes on Initiative 591.” (Initiative 591, which is backed by the National Rifle Association, would freeze current state rules on background checks.)

Hanauer's sentiment provided fodder for pro-gun forces in the state, said Alan Gottlieb, the head of the Second Amendment Foundation, which is fighting the background check measure. The comment came up repeatedly in phone banks Friday night, he said. “I found it appalling,” he said.

And it's energizing his side too. On Saturday morning he woke to a line of people looking for yard signs opposing the background-check measure. “People know their rights are under attack now,” he said. “Our people realize they need to get out there and work that much harder.”

Stronger background checks, he said, wouldn't have prevented the recent school shooting.

Public interest in high-profile shootings can be short lived, said Mark Glaze, a consultant for Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control group founded and funded by Michael Bloomberg. (He is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, Bloomberg News' parent company.) The group is also funding the background-check initiative in Washington state.

“The history of gun fights is when you have a very public tragedy it gets people's attention,” Glaze said. “It tends to motivate people. That window is pretty narrow. I guess we'll find out if 10 days is wide enough.”

The most recent poll in mid-October—prior to the shootings—showed that 60 percent of respondents would vote for the universal background check question while 44 percent said they supported the opposing initiative.

The state has seen a “general movement toward more background checks,” said Stuart Elway, who conducted the survey. He predicted the most recent school shooting will “accent” the trend—though not necessarily impact it too much.

“It's the whole sweep of these shootings,” he said. “There is so much background already baked into people's opinions about this issue.”

Geoff Potter, a spokesman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility which is backing the gun-control measure, said the shootings are underscoring a sense of resolve among volunteers that the state must change its gun laws.

“If I've heard one thing organically, it is that we can't accept this as the new normal,” Potter said.

Potter said his campaign hasn't changed strategy at all in the wake of the shooting. Ads are still running. Volunteers are still going door to door. And a group of parents of Newtown shooting victims are still planning a trip to Washington state in the final days before the election on Nov. 4.