Weeks after the head of the National Rifle Association’s lobbying arm told voters in Maine that rejecting a referendum requiring background checks for all gun sales was “crucial to freedom,” the NRA has effectively conceded the fight.
Facing a measure that has support from 61 percent of Maine voters and the backing of well-funded organizers, the gun group has decided to focus resources elsewhere, according to two people familiar with the NRA’s plans.
That’s the kind of choice gun reform advocates say they hoped to force when they developed a strategy of funding ballot initiatives to tighten gun laws in multiple states this year.
On November 8, Nevada residents will vote on their own universal background check measure, while Washington state voters will consider an initiative allowing judges to issue temporary violence restraining orders to remove guns from people found to be a danger to themselves or others. Californians will vote on a proposition that includes several gun regulations, including an outright ban on possession of high-capacity magazines and a background check requirement for ammunition purchases.
Though support for ballot measures often softens in the run-up to Election Day, polls suggest all four states, which together contain more than 50 million Americans, will pass their respective measures. A poll released Tuesday by the Las Vegas Review Journal found that 58 percent of likely voters support the measure, with 32 percent opposing.
“We are in a position where we could have a clean sweep,” said Zach Silk, president of Civic Ventures, a Seattle think tank funded by Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist who has contributed to the ballot efforts in Washington, Maine, and Nevada. (Hanauer provides seed funding to The Trace.)
California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, who plans to run for governor in 2018, pushed the proposition there. But the rest of the initiatives were born of a plan by gun safety groups to draw the NRA into a double bind: Either it can spend against efforts that poll well — and risk losses that could dent the chief gun lobby’s reputation for invincibility; or it can largely sit out the state ballot fights — and risk diminishing its fearless image.
By putting forward the measures in a presidential election year, the reform side boosted its odds: Unlike midterms, when the electorate skews older, whiter, and relatively pro-gun, presidential election years include more voters likely to support stricter gun laws.
The ballot battles also come during an electoral cycle in which the NRA has to help defend the seats of six senators who’ve earned A ratings for their gun rights positions and has decided to go all-in to boost the presidential prospects of Donald Trump as other conservative groups and donors pull back from his campaign. With five weeks to go before election day, the NRA’s total spending on 2016 federal contests has thus far topped more than $23 million, in striking distance of the record $32 million it dropped in 2014. In Nevada, on top of the ballot initiative it opposes, the NRA is hoping to block Democrats from electing another pro-reform lawmaker to the seat being vacated by retiring Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid. It’s spent over $1.6 million against Catherine Cortez Masto, the party’s candidate there.
Silk and another operative involved in the gun violence prevention groups’ ballot initiative offensive say their side considered funding universal background check ballot initiatives in Ohio and Arizona, as well as a measure barring guns on college campuses in Colorado, this year, before opting against going forward in those additional states.
“When we decide which ballot measures to support, we are strategic, and we play to win,” said Everytown spokeswoman Kate Folmar. (Everytown provides seed funding to The Trace.)
After the public outrage that followed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 failed to lead to the passage of the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey background check expansion bill in the U.S. Senate, gun safety groups shifted their focus to state-level efforts. The approach was influenced by the fight for same-sex marriage, where advocates used local wins to ultimately turn the national tide.
Nevada, Maine, and Washington are among states whose lawmakers blocked state background check bills in the wake of Sandy Hook. Ballot initiatives allow their voters the option of bypassing reluctant policymakers. In Washington state, lawmakers have also rejected legislation that would allow guns to be temporarily taken from those deemed to be a threat, the very question voters there will decide on this November.
In the 26 states that allow ballot initiatives, such measures can leverage two areas where supporters of stronger gun laws have an edge: polls and money. They appeal directly to voters on gun safety issues that have broad popular support: Universal background checks top 90 percent approval in national surveys. Compared to lobbying on legislation, ballot questions are expensive — they require additional polling, lawyers, signature gathering, dedicated staff, and statewide advertising. But whereas gun safety groups face a shortage of receptive lawmakers to woo in some states, they have the backing of funders who can afford to foot the bill for a ballot initiative campaign.
In 2014, Washington state voters approved a universal background check law via ballot initiative. Stephanie Ervin, the campaign manager at the Alliance for Gun Responsibility, a local group which led that effort and is playing the same role in this year’s push for gun violence restraining orders, said enlisting the support of law enforcement, gun violence survivors, and religious groups helped their cause.
So did the financial disclosure version of shock and awe. In quick succession, Hanauer, Bill and Melinda Gates, Paul Allen, and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer all announced six- and seven- figure donations to the effort. Everytown added another $2.7 million. Supporters of the measure claim the war chest prompted the NRA to abandon its previous plan to spend aggressively to counter the initiative. The group ultimately spent less than $500,000 on the fight, according to campaign finance disclosures it filed with the state, a comparatively modest sum amid its record outlay that cycle.
The 2014 vote in Washington state, the first big gun reform measure passed by popular vote since Oregon passed a measure expanding background checks in 2000, emboldened gun safety advocates to extend the battleground this year.
Again, big early commitments — this time by Everytown, Americans for Responsible Solutions, and a handful of tech billionaires — helped blunt opposition. Total sums will be unavailable until after Election Day, due to states’ varying campaign finance reporting rules. But data from Ballotpedia.org, which collects spending figures as they are disclosed, indicate that — at least so far — the NRA has not fulfilled a spokesman’s January 2015 pledge to challenge gun safety advocates on ballot measures “wherever they are.”
The group has stayed out of the fight in California; a San Diego businessman tried to get a measure opposing Newsom’s on the ballot, but announced last week that he failed to collect enough signatures.
Gun rights organizations have also steered clear of Washington state, where many of the same big local big donors who funded the 2014 push have helped raise more than $2.5 million this time around. Everytown has contributed $550,000 according to filings with state’s Public Disclosure Commission. Americans for Responsible Solutions, a group founded by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, provided another $250,000. The initiative appears positioned to pass: An August poll showed 64 percent of voters support the measure, while only 18 percent oppose it.
The NRA has spent significantly only in Nevada, where it reported spending $526,000 through August. By contrast, Everytown had spent $3.7 million through late summer as the background check measures built a big lead in surveys. Local casino executives, including the family of Steve Wynn and officials at Caesars Entertainment Corporation, have chipped in large donations in support of the campaign.
“Everything in this country costs money, and the people with the most money generally win,” said Don Turner, president of Nevadans for State Gun Rights, which is organizing opposition to the initiative. “It’s like playing poker. If you have $30 in pocket and a guys sits down across from you with a million dollars, you are gonna get hosed.”
In Maine, Everytown had spent $4.6 million by the end of September. The NRA contributed $420,000 before signaling it would not devote heavy resources to that fight.
The disparity angers David Trahan, head of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, which is organizing the fight against the referendum. The group led the defeat of a 2014 measure banning bear hunting. But Trahan says he can’t mount a similarly robust effort this year due to lack of funds.
The group has received “very, very little” help from out of state, he said.
This post has been updated to reflect the most recent spending figures for Maine.
[Photo: AP/Gerry Broome]