- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Gun-control advocates insist public sentiment is on their side, but ballot initiatives in the states paint a much muddier picture.

Voters in states such as Missouri, Washington and Illinois have all recently weighed in on the hot-button issue or will have a say come November — and they’re not settling into clear-cut patterns.

In Washington, polls show a measure to require background checks on all guns is poised for passage, but so is another measure that would mirror federal policy, which exempts private sales from the checks.

“I personally don’t oppose background checks, but I want to do it the right way,” said Alan Gottlieb, the head of a group that is backing the exemption measure. If both pass in November, a state court might have to weigh in to settle the matter.

In Missouri, meanwhile, 61 percent of voters this week approved a measure asking whether the state government is obligated to uphold the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

A year and a half after the Newtown, Connecticut, school shooting, the zeal for gun-control proposals has cooled in state legislatures. But voters are beginning to see the issue put directly before them — a move that allows organizers on both sides to tailor ballot initiatives.

And wording matters. A recent Quinnipiac survey showed broad support for stricter background checks, but the number fell to 50 percent when people were asked whether they supported “stricter gun control.”

In Nevada, gun-rights advocates won a minor victory recently when a district judge ordered organizers to rewrite a ballot petition to expand background checks to specify the criminal penalties that would result if the initiative were to become law.

In Washington, Mr. Gottlieb’s initiative also prevents state agencies from seizing weapons without due process. That section was crafted in part to help shift the conversation from background checks to the sensitive issue of gun confiscation, he said.

Ballot initiatives allow organizers to control small logistical elements that can play a role in how the issue is framed to the public.

After getting wind that organizers on the opposite side were planning their initiative to tighten the checks, Mr. Gottlieb said his group worked to qualify for the ballot first to secure the lower filing number — Initiative 591 compared with the dueling Initiative 594.

“We wouldn’t be in the game right now if we didn’t have 591 on the ballot,” he said.

Elsewhere, such ballot items appear to be more political than practical. In Illinois, the Cook County Board of Supervisors voted last month to put a nonbinding measure on November’s ballot asking voters to weigh in on whether the state should impose universal background checks and ban so-called assault weapons.

Other local initiatives have fallen more neatly into where respective states stand on the issue.

Residents in the town of Sunnyvale, Calif. — a state already home to some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country — overwhelmingly approved more controls last November, including a controversial measure that requires gun dealers to keep a log for two years of the type of ammunition people purchase.

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