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Voters in Washington State Approve Universal Background Checks

Voters in Washington state approved universal background checks, the only gun control measure on a state ballot this year.

Wikimedia Commons/ Hohum
In the only state election with a gun control measure in 2014, voters in Washington state approved an expansion of background checks on gun sales.

Voters faced the complication of two competing gun measures, one that extended a background-check requirement to private gun sales and one that would have blocked expanded background checks.

The expansion measure passed 60-40, while the anti-expansion measure failed 45-55.

Federal law only requires licensed dealers to conduct background checks for gun sales. Under the Gun Control Act of 1968, federal law clearly defined private sellers as anyone who sold no more than four firearms per year. But the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act lifted that restriction and loosely defined private sellers as people who do not rely on gun sales as the principal way of obtaining their livelihood. Because the distinction between private parties and licensed dealers is less clear, advocates for gun control have campaigned for new state laws that require background checks for all private sales, including those at gun shows and over the Internet.

The measure that passed in Washington state did just that. The measure that failed sought to preempt a state push for background checks of all gun sales by limiting the state's background check policy to whatever the federal government requires. The political makeup of Congress -- especially now that Republicans control the U.S. Senate -- all but guarantees that federal law will not include universal background checks for gun sales any time in the next few years.

Initially, it seemed possible that voters in Washington state would approve both measures, based on a poll conducted in Elway Research. Subsequent polls by the same firm showed the pro-expansion measure in position to win and the anti-expansion measure garnering less than 50 percent support.

Gun violence in Washington state drew national attention last month when a high school freshman shot five students in a cafeteria in Marysville, Wash.

"People want to do something and they see this as something they can do," said Ralph Fascitelli, president of Washington Ceasefire, an advocacy group in favor of tighter gun regulations.

Some of the state's wealthiest and best-known couples, such as Bill and Melinda Gates and Steve and Connie Ballmer, each donated more than $1 million to the campaign for expanded background checks, according to The Seattle Times. Investor Nick Hanauer, a national advocate of raising the minimum wage and addressing income inequality, also donated more than $1 million.

Political action committees in favor of expanded background checks raised more than $10 million, according to the state's Public Disclosure Commission. By comparison, gun rights groups, including a local chapter of the National Rifle Association, raised barely $1 million in opposition to the measure. (And they raised only about $1.3 million for the competing measure to block expanded background checks.) 

Since the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., almost two years ago, legislatures in four states passed new laws requiring universal background checks: Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware and New York. In Nevada, Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed a background-check proposal, though gun-control advocates are now hinting at a ballot measure to bypass the governor in 2016. In all six states and the District of Columbia require universal background checks, not including Washington state.

While some states under Democratic control took a cue from President Barack Obama and pursued tighter gun regulations after the mass shooting in Newtown, states under Republican leadership mostly took the opposite approach, encouraging citizens to carry guns in more places with fewer regulatory burdens. To prevent more school shootings, many they passed laws allowing teachers to carry concealed firearms at work.

Most recently, voters in Missouri and Alabama passed constitutional amendments in August and November that aim to confer stronger protections on the right to bear arms in those states. They, too, were a reaction to Newtown, but supporters said the stronger protections would guard against federal overreach in the future.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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