At least four states could see their gun laws change as a result of citizen-led ballot initiatives this November, when voters head to the polls for the 2024 election. Residents in Missouri have submitted measures to reinstate gun laws that were stripped over the last two decades, while residents in Oregon and Washington are seeking to undo reforms approved by voters in previous elections. A prospective measure in Arizona would relax gun restrictions for lawful users of marijuana.
As gun reforms have stalled in Congress, the ballot initiative process has become a way to counter Republican-controlled legislatures that oppose tighter gun regulations. This coming election promises more gun reforms on the ballot than ever before.
Victoria Rose, a researcher at Ballotpedia, a nonprofit that tracks campaigns, said that over the last 50 years there’s been “a shift from ballot measures establishing a right to bear arms,” nearly all of which have been adopted, “to measures that govern firearm regulation.”
The Trace analyzed state election filings and information compiled by Ballotpedia. Here’s a rundown of what initiatives could end up on the ballot this fall:
Ten gun-related initiatives have been filed in Missouri, the most of any state. They would require permits to carry concealed guns in public, establish a process for temporarily removing guns from people deemed by a court to be a danger to themselves or others, and mandate that customers at gun shows undergo background checks.
Other initiatives would give local municipalities the authority to impose firearm restrictions, essentially reversing the state’s decade-old preemption statute, which makes regulating guns the exclusive domain of Missouri’s General Assembly. Two of the initiatives specifically pertain to populated metro areas, including St. Louis and Kansas City, which have some of the highest rates of gun violence in the country.
A Pro-Gun Elections Official Is Rewriting Missouri Ballot Initiatives
The sole gun-rights initiative vying for the ballot would codify Missouri’s preemption of local gun laws in the state constitution, and overrule gun regulations passed by local governments. It was submitted by Paul Berry III, a suburban St. Louis Republican running for lieutenant governor.
Under Missouri law, the Republican secretary of state, Jay Ashcroft, summarizes each ballot initiative that’s filed to his office, and that summary is what voters see on the ballot. An ardent defender of gun rights, Ashcroft is known for rewriting initiatives so that they align with his politics. This year’s gun-reform initiatives on the ballot were not spared. The Trace examines how he reframed the language in this story.
In Arizona, where medical marijuana has been legal since 2010, the Wesson Gun Equality Act would allow holders of state medical marijuana cards to buy and possess guns. The initiative needs 255,949 signatures by July 3 to qualify for November’s ballot.
A similar initiative in Colorado, where recreational marijuana was legalized in 2012, would have allowed users of the drug to obtain permits to carry concealed guns in public. But the secretary of state rejected the measure in early January on the grounds that it related to more than one subject, a violation of state election law.
Initiatives around guns and marijuana represent a rare area of common ground for Second Amendment advocates and criminal justice reformers. Hundreds of people, largely people of color, are convicted and sentenced each year for violating the federal marijuana gun ban. “An expansion of Second Amendment rights might actually help communities that historically have been prevented from carrying firearms,” Mona Sahaf of the progressive Vera Institute told The Trace last June.
A group of local Republican politicians and gun rights activists are pursuing an initiative that would add Oregon to the list of states that don’t require a permit to carry concealed firearms. “I think Oregonians are ready for this change in the same way that more than half of our U.S. states have been,” one of the sponsors said last year.
In mid-January, a Republican activist filed an initiative that seeks to undermine the state’s five-year-old red flag law, which temporarily disarms people deemed by a judge to be a risk to themselves or others. But extreme risk protection orders aren’t granted without due process, as law enforcement or family members seeking to disarm someone in crisis must petition a court, so the initiative, if passed, would not affect the current law.
If the secretary of state approves the initiative’s language, the sponsors must get the signatures of at least 324,516 registered voters by July 5 to make it onto November’s ballot.
Even if a ballot initiative is successful, it can get tied up in court
In blue states where voters are likely to enact gun reform initiatives, conservative judges can have outsize influence. In Oregon in 2022, voters passed a measure to require police-issued permits and firearm safety training to buy a gun. But a judge in a rural Republican county later ruled the measure unconstitutional. A federal judge in California struck down a 2016 initiative — which voters overwhelmingly approved — that required background checks on ammunition sales and banned high-capacity magazines.
The Big Gun Cases Before SCOTUS
Unforeseen roadblocks can also delay implementation. In 2016, voters in Nevada approved an initiative to mandate federal background checks on private gun sales, but an oversight in the law made it unenforceable. Lawmakers are legally barred from amending an initiative for three years after its passage, so they had to wait to fix the measure.
Only a couple of states have successfully implemented gun reform ballot initiatives in the last decade. A 2018 measure in Washington state raised the minimum age to purchase a semiautomatic rifle to 21 and imposed a 10-day waiting period after buying one from a gun dealer. The measure has stood firm against court challenges, but some rural sheriffs have balked at implementing it.