On January 19, citizens in Maine joined thousands of other Americans attempting to sidestep state and federal governments and take gun policy into their own hands. Representatives from the local chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America delivered a petition of more than 85,300 signatures to the secretary of state, which, if certified in the coming weeks, will put the Background Check Initiative on the ballot for the state’s voters to decide on in November. If it passes, Maine will become the 18th state to require background checks on most gun sales and transfers between private parties, going beyond the federal requirement that only mandates checks on sales conducted by licensed dealers.
Ballot initiatives have become an increasingly regular part of the play books of gun-safety and gun-rights advocates alike. The strategy mirrors successful efforts to reform tobacco control policies and marijuana law, by forcing statewide votes on policies that enjoy public backing but sputter in the state house.
“There’s no substitute for underlying public support of an issue,” Gregory Tung, an assistant professor at the University of Colorado Denver and authority on the ballot initiatives process, tells The Trace. “It’s the opportunity for the public to speak very directly about an issue, instead of speaking through a representative.”
In 2014, at least three states passed substantial gun-related policies through ballot initiatives. Washingtonians arrived at the voting booth that November to find two ballot initiatives cut from very different cloth: I-594, to require universal background checks for guns sales, and I-591, to prevent the confiscation of firearms and implementation of expanded background checks. In the end, I-594 passed with 59 percent of the votes, while I-591 failed with 55 percent against.
In Missouri, meanwhile, voters laid down an obstacle to new gun safety laws by passing Amendment 5, which makes gun rights in the state “unalienable” and restrictions to these rights subject to “strict scrutiny.” A similar strict scrutiny ballot initiative sailed through in Alabama with more than 72 percent of the vote.
Here, a roundup of the ballot initiatives to watch in 2016.
On the Ballot
In next November’s general elections, Nevadans will vote on an initiative that would require most gun sales and transfers — including those between private, unlicensed parties — to go through background checks. (Exemptions include transfers between family members, temporary transfers while hunting, and for immediate self-defense.) The initiative comes three years after Republican Governor Brian Sandoval vetoed a similar piece of legislation.
“While I support enhanced reporting requirements concerning mentally ill persons,” said Sandoval while explaining his veto, “the provisions of Senate Bill 221 pertaining to background checks for the private sale and transfer of firearms constitute an erosion of Nevadans’ Second Amendment rights under the United States Constitution and may subject otherwise law-abiding citizens to criminal prosecution.”
As a result, Nevadans for Background Checks, an affiliate of Everytown for Gun Safety (a seed donor to The Trace), drafted the Background Check Act initiative in early 2014.
“We have the right to bear arms,” says Joe Duffy, campaign manager for Nevadans for Background Checks. “But with rights come responsibilities.” To qualify for the 2016 ballot, the Background Check Act racked up 166,779 signatures, far exceeding the required 101,667.
While universal background checks enjoy broad public support, the initiative must contend with fierce resistance. Nevadans for State Gun Rights is fundraising aggressively to counter the measure. The National Rifle Association (NRA) is also pitching in, sometimes in innovative fashion: In December, the gun group released a Snapchat filter countering the initiative with the slogan, “Don’t NYC my Nevada Gun Rights.”
It took local gun violence prevention advocates and law enforcement officials five months to gather the required 61,123 signatures to put Maine’s Background Check Initiative on the ballot. Ultimately, they collected signatures from all 503 cities and towns in the state.
The Maine campaign is based on several bills that failed to pass through the state legislature, as well as the successful initiative in Washington state. Like the measure in Nevada, it provides some leeway for transfers between family members and sportsmen and those made for self-defense.
“Maine has developed reputation as a state where it’s very easy to purchase a gun without a background check,”says South Portland Police Chief Ed Googins, who worked on the initiative. “What we have seen of public opinion in this matter is an overwhelming belief that background checks should be done in the state.”
The petition is now before Maine’s secretary of state, whose office must validate the signatures in order to send the question to the ballot.
In the Works
On January 28, Cincinnati City Councilman P.G. Sittenfeld unveiled a ballot initiative that would allow cities to enact their own gun ordinances — a power curtailed by a 2006 state law that overturned gun restrictions such as assault weapons bans and handgun registration requirements in more than 20 Ohio cities.
Sittenfeld has made gun reform a fixture in his primary campaign against former Ohio Governor Ted Strickland for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. He says if that even if he loses the Senate primary on March 15, he’ll keep pushing for the 305,591 signatures needed by July 6 to get the measure on the ballot.
“This is not about me or my campaign,” Sittenfeld said at a press conference. “This is a campaign of, by, and for the people of Ohio — and it is about restoring a right to them that the legislature should never have taken away.”
In October, in collaboration with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Lieutenant Governor and gubernatorial hopeful Gavin Newsom filed the Safety for All Act, a ballot initiative consisting of five general measures that would significantly strengthen gun restrictions in the Golden State.
California, unlike Nevada and Maine, already has comprehensive background checks. In fact, California’s extensive and sometimes unprecedented gun-safety legislation — such as the gun violence restraining orders that went into effect on January 1 — has landed it in the number one spot on the Law Center’s annual Gun Law State Scorecard for the past few years. With the Safety for All Act, Newsom and the Law Center are effectively doubling down.
Here’s what their initiative proposes, including yet another unprecedented measure:
Prohibit Possession of Large-Capacity Military-Style Magazines: The Safety for All initiative outlaws possession of large-capacity magazines of 11 rounds or more and provides for their legal disposal. If passed, California would join New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia in banning possession of these military-style magazines. Treat Ammunition Sales Like Gun Sales: The initiative requires licensing of ammunition vendors and point-of-sale background checks for ammunition purchases. Under the initiative, if a person is convicted of a felony, a violent misdemeanor, has a restraining order, or has been declared dangerously mentally ill, they will no longer be able to buy ammunition in California. California would be the first state to require ammunition background checks at the point of sale. Ensure People Prohibited from Owning Guns Do Not Possess Them: The initiative defines a clear firearms relinquishment process for those convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor. Require Reporting Lost or Stolen Guns: The initiative requires firearm owners to notify law enforcement if their firearm has been lost or stolen. With the Safety for All initiative, California would join 11 other states and the City of Sacramento in requiring lost and/or stolen firearm reporting.
Prohibit Possession of Large-Capacity Military-Style Magazines: The Safety for All initiative outlaws possession of large-capacity magazines of 11 rounds or more and provides for their legal disposal. If passed, California would join New York, New Jersey, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia in banning possession of these military-style magazines.
Treat Ammunition Sales Like Gun Sales: The initiative requires licensing of ammunition vendors and point-of-sale background checks for ammunition purchases. Under the initiative, if a person is convicted of a felony, a violent misdemeanor, has a restraining order, or has been declared dangerously mentally ill, they will no longer be able to buy ammunition in California. California would be the first state to require ammunition background checks at the point of sale.
Ensure People Prohibited from Owning Guns Do Not Possess Them: The initiative defines a clear firearms relinquishment process for those convicted of a felony or a violent misdemeanor.
Require Reporting Lost or Stolen Guns: The initiative requires firearm owners to notify law enforcement if their firearm has been lost or stolen. With the Safety for All initiative, California would join 11 other states and the City of Sacramento in requiring lost and/or stolen firearm reporting.
Despite general optimism from members of the campaign, the Safety for All Act faces substantive challenges. Existing law already bans sale of new high-capacity magazines, but like bans in Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts, and the lapsed federal version, residents have been allowed to keep high-capacity magazines they owned before the law went into effect. The Newsom initiative would go a step further, prohibiting the possession of high-capacity magazines already in Californian’s personal arsenals — a step that may stoke fears of gun confiscation.
Background checks on ammunition sales have also met pitfalls. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo attempted to implement a similar measure in 2013, but suspended the program due to a “lack of adequate technology.” Ari Freilich, a staff attorney with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, says the ammo background check provision has a better chance in California because the state already has the necessary groundwork: unlike New York, which uses the FBI’s background check system, California conducts background checks using its own records and databases.
“New York was being asked to rebuild the wheel a bit,” Freilich says. “California already has that in place.”
As with other gun safety initiatives throughout the country, the Safety for All Act will have to surmount opposition from the NRA and other gun rights groups. In the days after the ballot initiative was unveiled, the NRA vowed to fight the legislation if it moved forward. The Firearms Policy Coalition, a nonprofit California gun rights group, created the Firearms Policy Coalition Second Amendment Defense Committee (FPCSADC), a political action committee with the express goal of fighting and defeating the Safety For All Act.
“These measures will do nothing to advance public safety, but they will further undermine the Second Amendment rights of all Californians,” said FPCSADC President Brandon Combs in a press release. “The time to draw a line in the sand is right now.”
The organization claims to have mailed out over 25,000 “grassroots activism guides” to California residents, and is looking to recruit 100,000 volunteers for the fight.
Freilich says his side is looking forward to having it out over their proposals.
“My hope, because I’m an optimist, is that now that this text has been filed, [gun rights groups] will see that this is very reasonable, common-sense legislation that will save lives with very little impact on law-abiding gun owners,” he says. “I fully expect that California voters will send them a message next November that they disagree with their tactics and their views on this issue.”
But first, the organizers of the Safety for All Act must collect 366,000 signatures by spring to make it on to California’s November ballot. Even then, making the ballot might be only half the battle: Funding ballot campaigns in California can be exorbitantly expensive. Representatives from the Safety for All Act are mum on contributions received so far, other campaigns for initiatives that have already made the November ballot have raised anywhere from $1 million to $48 million.
Iowa, Oklahoma, and Minnesota
The ballot initiatives waiting to go before voters in these states face a different hurdle than the signature requirements in place elsewhere. Each of the three has a bill sitting in their respective state legislatures that proposes a change or addition to the state constitution. Only if the bills first pass the state legislature will they be put on the ballot for a public vote.
Since these initiatives originate in the state government, their progress is hostage to legislative sessions and will move at a slower pace than other initiatives. For example, in Iowa, where legislature meets in two-year sessions, a bill passed in 2017 would also have to pass the legislature again in 2019 before going to voters for a final decision, meaning the soonest it could make the ballot would be 2020.
There are currently two gun-oriented bills up for a vote in the Iowa state legislature in 2016: HJR10 and HJR11. HJR10 would add an individual right to bear arms to the state constitution, and HJR11 would add an individual right, along with a strict scrutiny clause. Since Iowa has a Democratic majority in the Senate, Cheryl Thomas, the policy director for Iowans Against Gun Violence, says she does not believe either bill will pass in 2016.
“We’ll be vigilant about it, and we’ll certainly fight it, but no, I’m not terribly worried about it happening,” she says. “That would be the worst nightmare scenario to have them pass. But in terms of actually becoming a constitutional amendment? It would take years.”
In Oklahoma, which already has an explicit right to bear arms in its state constitution, the legislature may vote this year on two bills introduced that would add strict scrutiny clauses if passed and then approved by voters. HJR1009 was introduced by the House, and SJR20 by the Senate.
A bill that would add the right to bear arms and a strict scrutiny clause to the Minnesota constitution is also sitting in that state’s legislature. If it passes the Democrat-held senate and Republican house, voters will be asked the following question on the 2016 ballot: “Shall the Minnesota Constitution be amended to protect the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms?”
Chet Billi, a 17-year-old Montana high school student, is collecting signatures to allow public employees to carry concealed weapons in schools.
“I’m hoping that with this initiative, that even if no teachers do decide to carry, that the possibility that there could be someone on campus with a handgun would be enough to deter most school shooters,” Billi said.
In August, Montana’s attorney general approved the language of the initiative. Billi must now get 24,174 valid voters for I-172 to appear on this year’s ballot.
In 2014, Safe Campus Colorado, a nonpartisan organization, pulled their campaign to put a ban on concealed carry guns on college campuses on the November ballot, despite collecting upwards of 100,000 signatures. The group said it would try again in 2016.
At the time an organizer for the group said: “It’s not a dead issue. It’s just for this election cycle, we made the really difficult decision that having the issue on the November ballot would likely have it be caught up in candidate campaigns and become a political football.”
Safe Campus Colorado is still mulling a 2016 campaign, pending support from funders. They hope to make a decision by the end of February.
[Photo: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File]