Gun control efforts have been a losing cause on Capitol Hill, even in the wake of some of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history, largely because of the National Rifle Association’s iron-grip on many conservative lawmakers.
Even after last summer’s shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead and 68 injured, Democrats couldn’t get through a measure granting the Justice Department authority to bar a known or suspected terrorist from purchasing guns or explosives if authorities believed the weapon might be used in commission of a terrorist act – or if the purchaser’s name turned up on a government “no-fly” list.
Previous bipartisan efforts by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WVA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA) to close a loophole in the federal law that allows the sale of guns and semi-automatic weapons at gun shows or online without requiring a background investigation of the purchaser went down as well. The NRA and allied gun owners and hunters vigorously oppose any new restrictions as an assault the Second Amendment rights.
Now gun control advocates have changed their tactics, giving up for the time being on Congress and pressing for action at the state level, where the NRA has had far less success.
On Tuesday, voters in four states – California, Maine, Nevada and Washington state – will decide on ballot initiatives that would either broaden the federal background investigation requirement, limit the size of ammunition magazines or grant people new avenues to protect themselves from dangerous people with guns.
“Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t shown a willingness to act,” Nick Wilson, executive director of the Maine Gun Safety Coalition, said in an interview on Thursday. “Until we see a change in Congress, then we’re going to have to do it at the state level.”
“And our hope is that as we have more stats to show that background checks work and we see that there are fewer homicides and domestic violence and fewer police shootings, then Congress will have to act,” he added.
Wilson’s group, a grassroots organization founded in 2000 after the April 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, is one of several dozen affiliated groups throughout 31 states seeking to achieve what has become impossible to do in Congress.
While many of these organizations have been outmatched by the resources and campaign war chest of the NRA and other gun rights activists, they have been assisted by a few gun control advocacy organizations with deep pockets.
The Washington Post reported this week that Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization founded by billionaire former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, has pumped $13.3 million into the Nevada effort, $4.6 million into the Maine ballot campaign and $550,000 into the Washington state effort.
The nation’s gun lobby – including the NRA, the National Shooting Sports Federation, the national Association for Gun Rights and Gun Owners of America, spend roughly $7.2 million a year opposing gun restrictions, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Bloomberg founded Everytown after Congress blocked a proposal to create universal background checks, in the wake of the fatal shootings of 29 elementary students in Newtown, Conn., in Dec. 2012. After repeatedly striking out in efforts to promote gun safety on Capitol Hill, Bloomberg and his allies shifted efforts to broaden restrictions at the state level.
John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, told the Washington Post that “We decided to take a state-by-state approach” out of frustration with congressional inaction. He said that in many ways, his group’s effort was borrowing a page from the decades’ long drive for marriage equality that sprang from state-by-state organizing.
Currently, 18 states and the District of Columbia require some type of background checks for purchasers of certain weapons.
In Maine and Nevada, gun control advocates are seeking voter support to close a loophole in the federal system that allows convicted felons, domestic abusers and mentally ill people to purchase firearms from private sellers at gun shows and online without the benefit of a background investigation.
The state legislatures in both those states previously approved expanded requirements for background checks. However, the Republican governors vetoed the bills in 2013. Now voters are being asked to override the governors’ actions and ratify the changes on the Nov. 8 ballot.
California and Washington state already have enacted background check requirements for gun purchasers. Voters there next week will consider taking additional big steps to rein in gun-related violence.
In Washington state, gun-control advocates are promoting a ballot initiative that would permit family members to seek court orders barring a relative from possessing a gun if he or she is deemed a threat.
Meanwhile, Gavin Newsom, California’s Democratic lieutenant governor, is heading up an effort to ratify a law banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips used in semi-automatic rifles and guns – the weapons of choice of many mass murders – and require anyone buying ammunition to pass a background check and obtain a state permit.
The California proposition –- the strictest of its kind in the country -- would also fine people who fail to report when guns are stolen or lost. It would also create a process for taking guns away from people convicted of a felony.
Prospects for passage of the ballot initiatives in the four states at one time appeared promising, although the campaigns have tightened up in recent weeks as opponents step up their efforts.
Maine, for example, has turned into one of the toughest battleground states in the debate over gun control. The expanded background check proposal that once enjoyed a 28-point margin in the polls is now down to just a nine percentage point advantage.
Wilson said the Virginia-based NRA and its allies have been scaring voters recently with flyers and warnings of preposterous hypotheticals of what might happen if the law is approved. They are also berating Bloomberg for trying to impose “New York City” gun rights on Maine residents.
Among the misinformation being spread by the opponents is that gun owners would be guilty of a felony if they didn’t conduct a background check on a new babysitter before allowing him or her into their homes where guns are kept. That’s because the gun owners technically would be transferring possession of the guns to the babysitters, the bogus argument goes.
Another phony scenario says that a person would need to do a background check on a hunting buddy who stayed in his car with his guns while he ran inside a store to buy a soda.
“So there are a lot of strange hypotheticals that they’re trying to say will make everybody a felon, even though it’s clear these are exemptions that are included in the law,” Wilson said.