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Dueling Washington initiatives: Who is really trying to confuse voters?

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Yesterday’s Seattle Weekly on-line edition quoted the campaign manager for the Initiative 594 asserting that the competing measure, Initiative 591, is a “cynical attempt to confuse voters,” but a look at how I-594 is being promoted and the measure’s actual language leaves one wondering who is actually confusing the issue.

In a Monday e-mail circulated by Sandra Castell with Organizing for Action, Eastside Organizers – announcing a "trip home" to Hawaii – she identified the 18-page gun control measure as “Initiative 594, Universal Background Checks for Gun Purchases.”

However, a look at the actual language of the initiative notes that it covers “All firearm sales or transfers, in whole or part in this state including without limitation a sale or transfer where either the purchaser or seller or transferee or transferor is in Washington, shall be subject to background checks unless specifically exempted by state or federal law.” As backers of I-591 have repeatedly cautioned, I-594 is about far more than sales. The measure defines "transfer" as "the intended delivery of a firearm to another person without consideration of payment or promise of payment including, but not limited to, gifts and loans."

Later in the initiative, in Section 4, it notes that “The background check requirement applies to all sales or transfers including, but not limited to, sales and transfers through a licensed dealer, at gun shows, online, and between unlicensed persons.” An alleged exemption for hunting says a “temporary transfer” is allowed “while hunting if the hunting is legal in all places where the person to whom the firearm is transferred possesses the firearm and the person to whom the firearm is transferred has completed all training and holds all licenses or permits required for such hunting, provided that any temporary transfer allowed by this subsection is permitted only if the person to whom the firearm is transferred is not prohibited from possessing firearms under state or federal law.” Clear as mud; to determine whether the person borrowing the gun meets all of those conditions would essentially require a…background check.

There is nothing in the language that would allow an exemption for a person with a concealed pistol license, which requires a background check and clean record.

I-594 creates two new crimes, one a gross misdemeanor and the other a class C felony. If passed, it would also carry some costs for local governments, according to Fiscal notes from the state Office of Financial Management. This is where I-591 backers call the “unfunded mandate” part of the measure kicks in, and they say it could directly impact local law enforcement.

In a report to the Legislature when lawmakers were considering both initiatives, an analysis notes, “This bill would have possible indeterminate expenditure impacts to local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and indigent defense. There would be potential impacts to both counties and cities resulting from the bill because felony charges are heard in superior courts, while misdemeanor charges are heard in courts of limited jurisdiction (city and county courts). There are no data to estimate the number of potential cases that would be investigated and charged under this this bill.”

“Indeterminate expenditures” could translate to “How high is up?” According to the fiscal note, “Total costs to prosecute, defend, and incarcerate one unranked class C felony case, assuming no trial or appeals, range from $4,424…to $36,305.” That may not seem like much to a Seattle-based group of moneyed elitists, but to a rural county with a limited budget, that’s a lot of money.

The Seattle Weekly story also tries to portray the battle as one between local activists and a behemoth gun lobby, but contradicts that notion thusly: “I-591 seeks to prevent any state-level gun regulations that haven’t been enacted nationally, and, as the politicking heats up, is sure to benefit from contributions from the gun lobby. So far, according to the Seattle Times, 594 has brought in $1.56 million in donations, ‘including $315,000 from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer,’ while Initiative 591 has raked in $722,000.”

Clearly, the big bucks have come to the coffers of the I-594 campaign, including $30,000 from billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns. Indeed, I-594 has “raked in” more than twice the amount as the I-591 campaign. Following last week’s press event, officially kicking off the I-594 campaign, spokesman Zach Silk told the Seattle Times that the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility would “raise whatever would be necessary to win,” and the newspaper noted that he had “previously estimated his effort could cost $12 million.”

Just who is talking about big money now? The National Rifle Association, which is usually held up as the bogeyman in such campaigns, has not contributed a penny so far to the I-591 campaign.

“They have some of the richest people on the planet writing them checks,” noted Phil Watson, treasurer for the I-591 campaign, “and still have the chutzpah to whine about money. I wish we had their money!”

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