NRA Ducks Gun Fight Out West

Washington State is on the verge of passing new gun control legislation. But while local groups fight back, the NRA is staying on the sidelines.

10.29.14 9:45 AM ET

“Good luck with that,” a male voice replied when I told him I was writing about the competing Washington State ballot initiatives on guns that are up for vote this Election Day. “I’ve been writing about it for a year and a half, it’s a minefield,” he said. “Do a feature on knitting, better for your disposition.”

After we chatted for a while, “one news hack to another,” as he put it, he introduced himself as Dan Workman, a nationally known gun writer and communications director for the Citizens Committee to Protect the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. I found his gallows humor refreshing as he explained how ballot measure 594, which calls for universal background checks for gun buyers, appears to be ahead of 591, which is backed by gun rights groups and would nullify or negate 594.

Measure 591 says no government agency can require background checks on gun recipients “unless a uniform national standard is required.” There is no expectation of federal action on gun safety, and to further confuse the issue, voters in Washington State can vote for or against either or both gun measures. And while polls show 594 is likely to pass, 591 could squeak by as well.

“It’s clear the gun lobby is counting on confusion as their best ally,” says Dan Gross, President of the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence. The National Rifle Association has not taken a position on 591 and, in our conversation, Workman confirmed that gun owners in the state are unhappy that the NRA hasn’t supported them. The Citizens Committee has only raised $1.3 million—compared to some $10 million on the gun safety side.

“The gun prohibition movement has lucked out by having people like Michael Bloomberg—he’s a devoted anti-gunner—and in Washington State we’ve got a handful of billionaires with a B. They have dumped an enormous amount of money into passing an initiative that, according to all opinion polls, they shouldn’t have had to spend a dime on it because it was a sure winner from the get-go,” Workman says with a note of sarcasm, indicating he didn’t trust those polls.

The web site for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility lists its top five donors as venture capitalist Nicolas Hanauer, the Bloomberg-funded Everytown for Gun Safety Action Fund, along with Bill and Melinda Gates and Connie Ballmer, wife of former Microsoft executive Steve Ballmer.

Collectively, they symbolize the biggest change in the gun safety movement since the massacre of 20 first graders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012, which is the leveling of the playing field when it comes to money. If they can pull off a win with 594, it would be the fifth state after New York, Connecticut, Colorado and Delaware to close the gun show loophole and expand background checks.

“Referendums are expensive but if you’ve got pockets, which the gun safety side now has, taking the battle to the states is doable,” says Jim Kessler, Co-Founder and Vice President for Policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group.

Asked what he makes of the NRA’s reticence in the Washington State initiative fight, Kessler replies, “It’s easier to bully politicians than to bully voters.” Recalling that the Manchin-Toomey bill to expand background checks got 55 votes in the senate but fell short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster, he says, “If there were a secret ballot in Congress, these gun laws would pass. But there isn’t, and the NRA takes retribution.”

Voters can’t be punished so easily, and Kessler speculates that if the NRA hasn’t put money into Washington State by now, it’s because their priority this cycle is turning the U.S. Senate Republican. “And they don’t like to fight and lose,” he adds. “If they think they’re going to lose, they minimally engage.”

The gun safety measure on the ballot would have had no bearing on the tragedy at Marysville High School last week: The shooter’s gun belonged to a family member, who had obtained it legally. But what’s at stake in the Washington State vote is the road ahead, and how viable it is for the gun safety movement to turn their efforts toward the states.

“We get the general disenchantment with Congress,” says the Brady Campaign’s Dan Gross. “It would be the definition of insanity to wait for Congress to lead and create change, that’s why we’re also focused on the states.”

The passage of 594 would tee up similar referendums in other states, namely Nevada, where petitions are already gathering signatures, Arizona, New Mexico, and in neighboring Oregon. “For the gun rights community, there’s reason to be wary,” says Workman. “And believe me, it’s not paranoia if you know they’re coming to get you.”

Gun rights groups like the NRA have long played the beleaguered underdog while pressuring its opponents into silence through campaign contributions, and there’s still some worry on the gun safety side that there’s a stealth campaign in this vote-by-mail election that could catch everyone by surprise.

But for now the surprise is that the gun lobby is on the defensive. I thanked Workman for his help and promised to do justice to his belief that any erosion of a civil right for gun owners is a loss for everybody even for those who don’t exercise the right. “If you don’t, I know where to find you,” he said with a laugh.

Win or lose, gun rights groups, particularly the NRA, are a formidable force. But they may finally have finally met their match on the playing field of politics.