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The New Gun-Control Strategy: Let the Voters Speak

In 2016, ballot measures in states could raise the political stakes of the issue.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Congressional Democrats’ latest push for gun control has landed in Washington with a thud. In the wake of mass shootings in Colorado and California, Republicans have once again voted down universal background checks, blocking the same measure that they defeated after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012. They’ve also voted down a new Democratic bill to ban people on terror watch lists from buying guns—a proposal that some on the left have also criticized as an ineffective gun-control measure that would curtail Americans’ liberties. 

The obstacles to progress at the federal level have prompted gun-control advocates to look for new work-arounds: While President Obama is moving forward on executive action to expand background checks, activists are pushing new measures on the state level, where they’ve been actually able to make some concrete gains. Blue states are moving to tighten their gun laws even more: On Thursday, Connecticut’s Daniel Malloy became the first governor in the country to ban those on terror watch lists from buying guns through an executive order; California legislators are calling for their state to take similar steps. 

But many of the same political obstacles that have blocked gun control in Washington are stopping such measures in the statehouses and governor’s mansions, where Republicans have made historic gains during the Obama era. So gun-control advocates are aiming to put the question directly to voters in 2016, to step around recalcitrant elected officials and to build a broader, long-term movement to support gun control. But they can only make limited progress without changing legislators’ minds—or electing new ones who agree with them.

Gun-control advocates are backing 2016 ballot initiatives in Maine and Nevada that would mandate background checks for private gun sales. Both campaigns arose after the states’ Republican governors, Paul LePage and Brian Sandoval, vetoed background-check bills that had made their way through the state legislatures. “We’re not doing this because of a specific recent tragedy, we’re doing this because of a long, long history of inaction,” says Matthew McTighe, who’s working on the Maine measure as a consultant for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, an advocacy group affiliated with Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. Activists are hoping to replicate the success they had in Washington state, which became the first to pass universal background checks through a ballot measure in 2014, with 60 percent of the vote. 

Some blue states are using ballot measures to move the goalposts further: California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who’s planning to run for governor in 2018, is spearheading a ballot measure that would require background checks for purchasing ammunition—a measure that New York passed in 2013, but then quietly suspended in a deal between Governor Andrew Cuomo and state Republicans. There is mixed evidence as to whether ammo background checks would be an effective way to reduce gun violence or help law enforcement track criminals. But the use of high-capacity weapons and mass casualties in recent shootings could make the reform politically appealing. The ballot measure would also prohibit the possession of high-capacity magazines, which are already illegal in California to import, manufacture, or purchase. Advocates expect to begin signature-gathering early next year in the state, which already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country. 

“Sometimes it’s the conventional wisdom that California has already done what can be done, which has turned out to be false,” says Dan Newman, a political consultant who’s working on the ballot initiative. Newsom acknowledges that the ballot measure wouldn’t necessarily have prevented the most recent attack—which was carried out with weapons that were obtained legally—but he says that doesn’t change the urgency for action. “To the extent it would address the issues of San Bernardino, perhaps not. But would it have impacted (other) mass shootings in California? That’s an open-ended question for consideration,” he told the Sacramento Bee. 

If the measure succeeds, it would give gun-control advocates in other states a new quiver in their arsenal. But California Democrats aren’t unanimous on the wisdom of it. Though Governor Jerry Brown is a Democrat, he has a mixed record on gun-control issues—including a veto of a 2013 state bill to ban semi-automatic weapons with detachable magazines, which he argued would infringe on gun owners’ rights. He’s recently expressed skepticism about the ballot initiative, telling CNN that state legislators themselves would do a better job at reforming gun laws. 

Support for the ballot initiatives is flowing from a gun-control movement that has gained new political traction and big-name donors since Sandy Hook. Everytown, for instance, is funding organizers to coordinate the signature-gathering efforts in Maine and Nevada. Nevada’s background-check initiative already has made it onto the ballot, and advocates in Maine are currently in the process of gathering signatures across the state. Advocates have also floated the possibility of putting background checks on the ballot in Arizona, though there are no concrete plans to do so yet. 

The hope is that the ballot initiatives can not only circumvent stalled legislatures, but also shift the politics around an issue that’s become increasingly partisan. “What we’ve done is that we’ve mostly had these broad cultural debates—‘guns are good, guns are bad’—rather than saying, some people like guns, some people hate guns, but what policy do we think make us most safe and be most fair?” says Daniel Webster, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. Along those lines, advocates are trying to pitch the ballot measures as moderate, non-invasive measures. 

Winning in blue states is one thing, and even then it’s not always easy; victories next November in places like Nevada and Maine would be real signs of progress. Both are states with strong gun cultures—and more Republicans in office than deeply blue states like Connecticut and Delaware, which were among the first states to strengthen gun control after Sandy Hook. “Maine has a long history of hunting, trapping,” says Tighe. The challenge is to honor “that proud tradition of gun ownership,” he says, and to convince voters that the background check law “just solidifies that the people who have them should have them.” 

Successful ballot initiatives in more purple states could also help expose the divide between Republican voters and Republicans in office. Polls have repeatedly shown that voters from both parties overwhelmingly support background checks. 

However new their strategies may be, though, gun-control advocates are facing the same old challenge: a deep-pocketed gun lobby that’s been extremely successful in blocking gun-control measures and relaxing gun laws—even in some of the very states that the gun-control advocates are targeting in 2016. In Maine, for example, the state passed a new law in July that allows people to carry concealed weapons without a permit. (“You can open carry in Maine now. All this does is allow open-carry gun owners to put a jacket on,” argued the GOP state senator who sponsored the bill, trying to describe the difference between open and concealed carry.) Though Bloomberg has pledged $50 million to the gun-control fight, the National Rifle Association’s operating budget is an order of magnitude larger: Its operating budget in 2013 alone was $290 million. 

Gun-control advocates have no real choice but to focus on the states—and to use those efforts to rally donors, small donors, and grassroots volunteers. The victorious 2014 ballot initiative in Washington state attracted both the support of big donors like Bill and Melinda Gates, who donated $1 million to the effort, as well as 10,000 smaller contributors. In Nevada, advocates have collected the most signatures ever for a ballot initiative in the state, which they hope to translate both into votes on Election Day as well as longer-term organizing power. “You have to have boots on the ground, and we’ve never had boots on ground. It’s always been a D.C. think-tank initiative,” says Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. “We need volunteers on the ground to collect the signatures, need people to knock on doors, educating people and getting people to vote.” 

But there’s only so far this strategy can ultimately go. Only about half of all states even offer a citizen initiative process. Besides, state laws are no substitute for federal action. Given how guns travel across state lines, as Watts says, “You’re only as safe as your nearest state.” 

To make truly meaningful progress, there’s no way around swaying legislative elections: The gun-control movement ultimately has to convince more legislators to shift on the issue, or elect more legislators who are sympathetic to the cause. That means persuading more Americans to make gun control a litmus test for candidates, as the pro-gun lobby has done so successfully. 

“The success of the gun-rights side is that they’ve linked the issue of gun ownership very deeply with ideals of freedom and individual rights and protection from overbearing federal government—it becomes part of a worldview on a set of issues, something deeply felt by a lot of Americans,” says Drutman. While they’ve clearly gathered steam in the years since Sandy Hook, gun-control advocates have yet to channel the passion of their own supporters into elections with the same organized intensity. “For very few voters is this the most important issue,” Drutman notes. But ballot measures, at least, will put the question directly to voters in some states—connect the debate over gun violence not just to mass shootings, but Election Day.