In Our View: Do Homework on Initiatives

Pair of measures on background checks for firearms sales may confuse voters

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The general election is more than six months away — 200 days to be exact — but competing measures on this year’s statewide ballot demonstrate that it’s never too early to become educated about the issues.

Initiative 594 would require background checks on all firearm sales in Washington, including those at gun shows and between private parties. Initiative 591, meanwhile, would prevent Washington from adopting background checks that are stricter than the national standard, which currently requires checks for sales by licensed dealers but not from private sellers.

The oil-and-water nature of the two measures would appear to be self-evident; Washington cannot simultaneously adopt stricter background checks and prohibit stricter background checks. But a survey released this week by pollster Stuart Elway serves as a harbinger of the contentious election season ahead. Elway found that 72 percent of the Washingtonians surveyed are inclined to vote for Initiative 594, and 55 percent are inclined to vote for Initiative 591. The poll found that 40 percent of voters were inclined to support both measures, an act of incongruity that is difficult to rationalize.

Hence the need for education. Fortunately, the election remains far off, leaving time for thousands of newspaper articles and hundreds of TV commercials to provide information about the issues and the candidates. Or maybe it’s the other way around — hundreds of articles and thousands of commercials — but either way, there will be no shortage of insight available between now and election day.

Dave Workman, a spokesman for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, which supports I-591, told the Associated Press, “By the time the election rolls around, voters are going to have a pretty good idea of what both initiatives are all about.”

Likely, the rest of the nation will, as well. Two years ago, Washington attracted national attention as the state voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for adults and also approved gay marriage. Last year, the state was a testing ground for the contest over genetically modified foods. Now, it will be gun control that brings attention — and plenty of influence peddling in the form of cash — to this corner of the country.

Washington, in part because of its readily accessible initiative process and the extensive power that process provides to the public, has become a frequent battle spot for groundbreaking issues. This represents the forward, think-outside-the-box nature of the Northwest. We aren’t afraid to put innovative issues on the ballot and let the people decide. But the competing nature of I-594 and I-591 — and the similarity of their numbers — will provide a new test in overcoming voter confusion.

Elway noted that in a March 2013 poll, 79 percent of Washington voters favored background checks on all gun sales. That number dropped to 62 percent this year, but “the underlying attitude about gun rights may have shifted somewhat in the past year, but not in a consistent direction.”

Both sides, certain to be backed by cash from like-minded advocates throughout the country, will be spending the next several months promoting their message and attempting to sway the electorate. There are compelling arguments to be made in favor of both initiatives, and yet they cannot coexist. That means it is time for voters to start educating themselves.