In 2016, a group of gun safety activists in Ohio decided they wanted to get a universal background check initiative on the 2020 ballot. Similar initiatives that expanded background checks to private gun sales had just been passed by voters in Washington State and Nevada, and the group, Ohioans for Gun Safety, wanted to replicate their success.
The all-volunteer staff spent more than a year conducting a listening campaign, during which they surveyed gun owners at gatherings across Ohio. They spent another year crafting language with the help of national gun reform groups and legal experts. They got the mayors of Cincinnati and Dayton on board. They gathered 2,000 signatures to file the proposal, then moved on to the final step: collecting more than 250,000 signatures. In December, they decided to shoot for the 2021 ballot, instead, to give themselves more time.
Then the coronavirus hit. The state Health Department issued a shutdown order in April. Collecting signatures became too risky for Ohioans for Gun Safety’s volunteers, who skew older. Four years of work was put on hold until 2022 — at least.
“We have overcome so many hurdles, but we never anticipated a pandemic,” Anne Wallace, one of the campaign’s organizers, told The Trace.
The 2020 election marks the first time in six years that a gun reform initiative will not appear on a state ballot anywhere in the United States. Ballot initiatives have been used by both lawmakers and advocates in recent years as an end-run around Republican-dominated legislatures and statehouses that refuse to tighten gun regulations. They are part of a broad trend toward direct democracy by left-leaning activists who have had success with measures addressing the minimum wage, medical marijuana, felon re-enfranchisement, and Medicare expansion. But COVID-19 has made signature collecting — a crucial step in the ballot initiative process — a dangerous undertaking.
The Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly is at a stalemate over guns, refusing to take up even the modest reforms — including a voluntary background check expansion — proposed by GOP Governor Mike DeWine in response to last year’s mass shooting outside a Dayton bar. There is a slight chance that the state government could flip, or at the very least that Republicans could lose their supermajority, after the House speaker was indicted on bribery and racketeering charges in July. But the ballot initiative process offered Ohioans for Gun Safety a chance to pass gun regulations without relying on political contests. Signature collection is the final step in that process.
“Really effective signature drives depend on large crowds of people being able to gather, whether at state fairs or music festivals or political events,” Wallace said. “If those don’t occur until 2022, we may not be able to reactivate the campaign until then.”
In the meantime, Ohioans for Gun Safety is securing future signatories through an online tool called commit-to-sign, which lets supporters sign up to be notified when signature collection restarts.
As for in-person signature collection, “we’re waiting until it feels safe to go ahead and restart again,” Wallace said. “And it’s hard to know, given where we are with the state of the pandemic, when that will be.”
Wallace’s was not the only gun-related ballot initiative effort derailed by COVID-19. Groups in at least three other states are facing similar obstacles in their efforts to bring gun reform measures to the ballot. Activists in Oregon and Oklahoma also stopped collecting signatures for fear of spreading the disease, depriving them of an important vehicle for state-level gun reform.
Ballot initiatives have put gun laws on the books in several states. In 2014, a coalition of groups led by Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility pushed Initiative 594, a sweeping gun reform package that was approved by voters. In 2016, Nevada voters passed a universal background check initiative sponsored by an activist group largely funded by Everytown for Gun Safety. (Everytown provides grants to The Trace through its nonpolitical arm. Here’s our list of major donors and our policy on editorial independence.)
That same year, California voters overwhelmingly approved a ban on large-capacity magazines and a background check requirement for ammunition. (Meanwhile, in Maine, a background check expansion failed to pass by less than two percentage points.) In 2018, gun reformers in Washington State again used the ballot initiative process, this time to raise the age to legally own semiautomatic rifles from 18 to 21 and impose a waiting period on their purchase, as well as to implement penalties for unsafe gun storage.
In early March, Oklahoma state Representative Jason Lowe and the gun reform group Moms Demand Action were collecting 95,000 signatures to get a permitless carry repeal on the 2020 ballot. The measure was declared invalid by the Oklahoma Supreme Court in June because of “misleading” language. Lowe told The Trace that if the pandemic hadn’t happened, he’d have amended the language and gotten the measure in front of voters in November.
“Covid came around and that just derailed everything,” Lowe said.
Now, Lowe is moving on, focusing his efforts on keeping guns out of schools. If his GOP colleagues pass legislation to allow teachers to be armed, he said he will consider a veto referendum to repeal it, a process that’s similar to a ballot initiative but requires nearly 40,000 fewer signatures. Still, collecting them will be difficult, he said, as the process now requires new protocols.
“Making sure we sanitize pens, clipboards. Make sure the individuals who are collecting the signatures have masks and gloves on,” Lowe said. “We just have to adapt with the times.”
Some states have allowed electronic signature collection because of the pandemic, including Montana, New Jersey, and Utah. Groups in Ohio sponsoring ballot initiatives that would have expanded voting access and raised the minimum wage unsuccessfully sued the state to accept electronic signatures in April. In Arizona, an attempt by four ballot measure campaigns to collect digital signatures was blocked by the state Supreme Court shortly before GOP Governor Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order expired in mid-May. Coalitions seeking to legalize recreational marijuana, loosen sentencing laws, and raise income taxes restarted their signature-collection efforts as soon as the state reopened.
That’s something Wallace felt she couldn’t do once stay-at-home orders were lifted in Ohio. “While there is disappointment, many of our volunteers are older, and the idea of having them go out and put themselves in risky situations, it felt so wrong,” she said.
When the virus began spreading across the United States this spring, Lift Every Voice Oregon, a coalition of faith-based organizations, was getting ready to circulate signature sheets for several initiatives, including a minimum-age requirement and waiting period to buy semiautomatic rifles, and a ban on high-capacity magazines. The group needed to gather 112,020 signatures by July. But in April, it paused its efforts.
“Without the pandemic, we certainly would have been able to collect the signatures that we needed,” Rabbi Michael Cahana of Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, one of the group’s organizers, told The Trace. “The most important thing is getting this pandemic under control. But the problem of gun violence has not gone away.”