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Firing Blanks 

Disappointed gun control advocates see small gains in failed efforts to push reform through a divided Legislature

click to enlarge Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords helped to lobby for gun reform in Washington.
  • Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords helped to lobby for gun reform in Washington.

Despite unparalleled political momentum and public outrage in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, Washington gun control advocates have watched almost all of the newly proposed firearm safety bills fall short in the recent legislative session.

Most prominently, House Bill 1588, which would have expanded background checks for certain private firearm sales, died last week when it failed to get a floor vote. Other bills proposing a state assault weapons ban, promoting firearm safety programs or mandating gun security measures have also disappeared in committee.

While several states, including Colorado and New York, have imposed stringent new gun laws in recent weeks, gun control supporters in Washington and other states have failed to get traction on many new proposals.

State Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, introduced the background checks bill knowing any proposed gun regulation would face fierce opposition, but he says he had hoped expanding background checks would serve as an important initial step toward keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

“It seemed like the [approach] that would have the best chance,” Pedersen says, citing a recent poll showing nearly 80 percent of state voters supporting the idea.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former U.S. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords soon joined the extraordinary lobbying effort. With new public interest, Democrats partnered with law enforcement representatives and community groups to build bipartisan support.

“We put a lot of energy into it,” Pedersen says.

Opponents argued running private sales through background checks would create a “de facto” gun registration that would pave the way for government-led confiscations.

While the bill survived a 7-6 vote to get out of committee, it later failed to receive enough support to go to a floor vote. And with that, the state Legislature’s most high-profile attempt at gun reform in years fell short. Pedersen says the bill made it further than many might have initially expected, but it also highlighted weaknesses.

“There was definitely progress,” Pedersen argues. “The effort here sort of showed us where we need to do some work.”

In hindsight, Pedersen explains new gun control campaigns struggled to compete with the well-established outreach efforts of the National Rifle Association. The NRA continues to wield broad influence, he says, by endorsing candidates and maintaining an extensive email network to apply political pressure to targeted districts.

But Pedersen says this year’s work helps set a foundation for future efforts.

“You don’t go from zero to 60 [mph] in 30 days of a legislative session,” he says.

Nationally, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee recently advanced a bill requiring federal background checks for private gun purchases. The bill faces a tough sell in the Republican-controlled House. Other gun control efforts in Congress, such as a national assault weapons ban, have encountered sharp opposition.

Meanwhile in Idaho, lawmakers have sought to limit any new gun restrictions with House representatives passing bills to protect Idaho-made guns as well as making it illegal for local police officers to assist federal agents with seizing any firearms.

Christian Sinderman, a spokesman for the newly established Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, says gun rights may always hold an intense place in American politics.

Public opinion can shift dramatically across state lines. While Washington has seen its share of gun-related violence, he says, it has not endured the history of tragedy that a state like Colorado has.

“At the end of the day, this is a passionate issue for a lot of people,” he says.

Sinderman says he sees the debate tipping toward new gun regulation in the coming years. Until significant action is taken to prevent gun violence, he says the number of gun control groups and supporters will likely continue to grow.

“I think we’ve seen a huge boost in support in just the last few years,” he says. “It’s a step forward if nothing else, and we like the direction we’re going.”

Sinderman says the alliance plans to continue working on potential options in the current session with sights on a potential voter initiative on background checks in the future. But no final decisions have been made.

In related matters, Pedersen says the Washington State House did advance a bill to require individuals listed in domestic violence protection orders to surrender their firearms. Lawmakers have also strengthened some mental health standards on treatment and involuntary commitments.

Looking ahead, Pedersen compared gun control efforts to the gay rights movement, which has advanced rapidly in the past decade. He says if gun control advocates can start a “cycle of winning,” they can potentially carry this year’s momentum into the 2014 session.

“I think we could be looking at a different story next year,” he says. 

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