Last summer, in the wake of attempts to institute gun reform measures by ballot initiatives in several states, the National Rifle Association’s then-chief lobbyist Chris Cox warned about the growing threat posed to gun rights by direct democracy.
“Many states have voter-driven initiative processes, so we should not be surprised if similar efforts appear across the country,” Cox wrote in a column for the Institute for Legislative Action, the NRA’s lobbying and legislative arm. He went on to raise the specter of the deep-pocketed gun reform movement, which would “keep pushing attacks on the Second Amendment by trying to confuse voters at the ballot box.”
Stymied in federal and state legislatures, gun reform activists have achieved significant gains through the ballot initiative process over the last five years. In 2014, Washington voters approved universal background checks. In 2016, Nevada voters did the same, while Californians banned large-capacity magazines and set background check requirements for ammunition. Last year, residents of Washington State raised the age to own certain guns from 18 to 21, lengthened waiting periods to purchase, and imposed gun storage mandates. In a handful of other states, similar measures failed by a narrow margin. The gun reform measures are part of a broad trend toward direct democracy by left-leaning activists, who have had success with measures on the minimum wage, medical marijuana, felon re-enfranchisement, and Medicare expansion.
In response to the gun measures, the NRA has joined the broader push by members of the GOP’s conservative coalition to stop newfound progressive energy behind ballot initiatives. Over the last two years, 27 state legislatures have considered bills that would make it much harder to put policies directly in front of voters, and in 12 states the proposals became law, according to the left-leaning Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. The NRA has thrown its weight behind two of the bills, in Maine and Florida.
Gun violence prevention is “another issue in this larger dynamic where there is popular support for almost always progressive priorities, but because of legislative gridlock, people have turned to ballot measures,” said Zachary Roth, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University who has written about efforts to restrict direct democracy. The proposals to make it more difficult for citizens to pose policy questions directly on the ballot are “a way for the NRA to crack down on efforts to mobilize people to reduce gun violence.”
The pre-eminent gun rights organization is mired in scandal, but its political influence across the United States remains vast.
Last year, the gun group supported a proposal in Maine that would have significantly increased the number of signatures required for a successful ballot measure from residents of less densely populated counties. While that effort ultimately failed, a similar measure in Florida to change the ballot initiative process was signed into law last month with the NRA’s enthusiastic backing. The law requires hired petition-gatherers be paid by the hour rather than by the number of signatures they collect. It also forces people collecting signatures to register with the state, and imposes monetary penalties for failing to promptly submit signed petitions.
In both Maine and Florida, the NRA urged its members to call and write their state legislators to demand they pass the ballot measure restrictions. “These changes are critically important to gun owners, as anti-gunners repeatedly try to subvert the Constitution and Second Amendment rights by imposing gun bans and gun control through the ballot petition process,” said NRA state lobbyist Marion Hammer in praising the new Florida law.
The NRA announced its support for the bills in response to particular gun reform ballot measures. In Maine, state lobbyists advocating for the restriction cited a universal background check question on the 2016 ballot. In Florida, despite modest gun reforms passed in the aftermath of the Parkland shooting, state legislators killed a more aggressive assault weapon ban. A progressive coalition immediately began planning to put the ban on the 2020 ballot.
“The reason Floridians pass citizens’ initiatives is because the Legislature does not address the needs of the voters,” said Patricia Brigham, the president of the nonpartisan Florida League of Women Voters, an advocacy group which has joined the assault weapon ban effort.
But with the new changes to Florida’s ballot initiative process, gun reform activists believe their path has now become much more difficult. Ben Pollara, a Florida political consultant working on the assault weapon ban, said the new rules will make his job significantly harder. “It’s going to raise the cost of getting anything on the ballot by 50 to 100 percent,” he said.
The assault weapons ban in Florida is just one of many ballot initiatives slated for the coming election. According to Ballotpedia, there are 10 gun-related ballot measures currently planned for 2020. Eight of the measures would tighten gun laws or seek to reduce shootings.
The initiatives threaten the NRA and other conservative groups’ hold on power, said Pollara. Ballot measures, he said, are “the only lever of power they don’t have absolute control over, so they decided to strangle it.”