Washington gun initiatives square off

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OLYMPIA — Whether you are for or against stricter background checks on gun sales, you'll have a chance in the coming months to support your position by signing an initiative to next year's Legislature.

If both Initiative 591 and Initiative 594 get the required signatures, they'll likely be on the 2014 ballot if the Legislature follows its recent pattern of punting such measures to the voters rather than adopting them.

I-591, a one-page proposal that bans government confiscation of guns and any background check that isn't part of a national system, started its signature-gathering campaign about two weeks ago at one of the state's biggest gun shows, the Washington Arms Collectors' Show in Puyallup.

"We knew what the other side was going to do. We filed before they did," said Alan Gottlieb, campaign manager for Protect Our Gun Rights.

I-594, an 18-page proposal that lays out a process to apply the current federal system of background checks required by dealers to private sales in Washington — with some exceptions for family transfer and antique sales — got its final ballot language approved last week and will start circulating petitions this week.

"It looks like we'll be out there together," said Zach Silk, campaign manager for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which is sponsoring I-594.

Silk accused I-591 supporters of trying to muddy the waters with competing initiatives: "The fastest path to victory is confusion. I think that indeed is the gun lobby's strategy."

Gottlieb insisted they were just trying to give voters options: "We think that voters are smart, and we're giving them a choice."

Each campaign will need to collect at least 246,372 valid signatures from registered Washington voters by Jan. 3 to send their proposal to the 2014 Legislature. Both expect to pay signature-gathers to collect at least some of those names. As Gottlieb pointed out, it's been several years since any initiative reached the ballot without at least some paid signatures.

That raises the prospect of some enterprising signature-gatherer working both initiatives, and when the targeted voter reacts negatively to being asked to sign up for tighter background checks, producing a separate clipboard to sign up to ban tighter background checks. Gottlieb said Protect Our Gun Rights has commitments from its signature companies to stick solely with I-591. Silk said the alliance's volunteers obviously won't be carrying the other proposal, but paid gatherers might because they're independent contractors.

The Legislature struggled earlier this year with expanded background checks for gun sales in Washington. Although Gov. Jay Inslee made that one of his primary goals for the 2013 session, background check proposals failed to get a floor vote in either chamber. If either initiative gets enough signatures, the Legislature has the option of passing it outright, ignoring it and sending it to the November ballot, or passing an alternative and sending both to the ballot.

If both get enough signatures, Gottlieb predicted the Legislature will do nothing with either, and both will be on the November ballot. That will likely set off what Silk called "a multimillion-dollar public education campaign on both sides."