If lawmakers duck background checks, voters must act

The News TribuneApril 30, 2013 

There’s a reason lawmaking is often compared with making sausage: It isn’t always a pretty sight when legislators wrangle, compromise, horse trade and even yell at each other.

Still, compared with the initiative process, that’s generally the better way of getting things done; it more often results in laws that have been vetted for practicality as well as their chances of withstanding judicial review.

But when lawmakers fail to act on an issue of concern for significant numbers of their constituents — and especially when they’re intimidated by a powerful special interest — then it’s up to the people to act. In past years, for instance, lawmakers wouldn’t buck Big Tobacco in order to enact a statewide public smoking ban. So the people acted, passing an initiative by a wide margin to prohibit smoking in public places.

Another such issue faces Washington now: expanding background checks on gun purchases. Neither state nor national lawmakers have summoned the courage to stand up to the rich, powerful gun lobby, which is financed in large part by the $12 billion-a-year firearms and ammunition industry — and which opposes checks.

The voters are less likely to be so easily cowed. But initiative backers must be smart. People who write ballot measures have a tendency to overreach. That could defeat the initiative on background checks announced Monday by the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility and the Faith Action Network.

The backers, who are still working on the initiative’s wording, plan to send it to the Legislature for action in the 2014 session. Legislators could enact it into law, send it directly to the ballot, or pass an alternative and send it and the original to the voters.

The best alternative is for lawmakers to recognize the wide support for background checks and enact meaningful legislation. An Elway poll earlier this year found that 79 percent of voters in this state support closing the private-party loophole by requiring screening on all gun sales. Currently, only sales made by federally licensed gun dealers require background checks.

Initiative backers should keep it simple: Require checks on private-party sales (including online) and provide an exemption for gifts to family members — as long as the giver is confident that the recipient is legally allowed to own a weapon. Don’t include any language that might be construed as banning a loan to a friend.

Ideally action would be taken at the national level, so that one state’s tough restrictions wouldn’t be undercut by a neighboring state’s laxity. Unless that happens by early 2014, initiative backers should move forward. Background checks won’t prevent all gun tragedies; preventing some would be good enough.

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