Gun control advocates won a significant victory this week when voters approved expanded background checks on most private firearms purchases in Washington state.
Voters also rejected a competing referendum that would have limited background checks and other gun controls measures to what federal law requires. That ballot initiative would have conflicted with the other provision had both passed.
The votes, which became final Wednesday, suggest that putting these kinds of issues directly to voters, circumventing state legislatures that are often reluctant to tangle with well-financed gun rights groups, could be a successful post-Newtown strategy for gun opponents.
“When Americans vote on public safety measures to prevent gun violence, gun safety wins,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group co-founded earlier this year by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Everytown spent more than $4 million on the effort to pass Initiative 594, the push for expanded background checks. Bill Gates also contributed to the effort, which collectively raised more than $10 million.
The National Rifle Association raised about a half-million dollars to block the initiative but did not actively back the competing Initiative 591, which was also intended to prevent gun confiscation without due process.
Anti-gun Initiative 594 passed with about 60 percent of the vote, while pro-gun Initiative 591 was rejected 55-45.
The approved measure expands the required checks to cover most private sales. Current law in the state, like at the federal level, only requires checks for transactions involving licensed dealers.
The decision from voters came soon after the shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in the state last month, in which a student killed three people and wounded several others before taking his own life.
Advocates say they now have their sights set on getting a similar initiative onto the ballot in Nevada.
And gun control advocates said that despite Republican victories in federal and state elections across the country, pro-gun control candidates did well. Everytown claimed a success rate north of 70 percent for the candidates it endorsed — though many weren’t running in districts thought to be terribly competitive.
Howard Wolfson, a longtime adviser to Mr. Bloomberg, tried to point to wins by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Connecticut Gov. Dannel P. Malloy as evidence that state-level candidates can run — and win — on a platform of tighter gun controls.
But the NRA spent about $35 million on the midterm elections — roughly half of that on Senate races where Republicans nearly ran the table in competitive contests — and invested heavily in gubernatorial candidates like Republican Larry Hogan, who scored a major upset in liberal Maryland by defeating Democratic Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown.
“Those who are drowning will be forced to grasp at straws,” NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam said. “The reality is that there was an overwhelming rejection of candidates who supported gun control at the federal and state levels and in numerous high-profile races all across the country.”
Alabama voters also overwhelmingly passed a measure reaffirming citizens’ right to bear arms and saying that “no international treaty or law shall prohibit, limit [or] otherwise interfere with a citizen’s fundamental right to bear arms.”