Politics & Government

Ruling could keep gun-regulation measure off Washington state ballot

Supporters of Initiative 1639 assemble in Seattle’s Occidental Park to gather signatures. From left are Gus Webster of Seattle, Pavi Chance of Edmonds and, at far right, Jordan Waits of Tacoma.
Supporters of Initiative 1639 assemble in Seattle’s Occidental Park to gather signatures. From left are Gus Webster of Seattle, Pavi Chance of Edmonds and, at far right, Jordan Waits of Tacoma. Seattle Times

A Thurston County judge Friday dealt a major blow to a proposed firearms-regulation measure, raising questions about whether Initiative 1639 will appear on Washington’s fall ballot.

Superior Court Judge James Dixon ruled that the formatting of the signature petitions used in the Alliance For Gun Responsibility’s campaign “did not comport” to Washington law.

“Frankly, this court does not struggle with this issue,” said Dixon. The law, he said, requires that petitions “must have a readable, full, true, correct copy of the proposed measure.”

Dixon ordered that the state Secretary of State’s Office stop its certification of the initiative, a sweeping proposal that includes raising the purchase age to 21 for semi-automatic rifles.

The alliance immediately appealed Dixon’s decision, and the state Supreme Court is expected to consider the case in the upcoming weeks, according to Greg Wong, an attorney for the initiative campaign.

“Obviously we disagree with how the judge came down on this,” said Wong.

Previous Washington state court decisions have allowed initiatives with petitions considered flawed to move forward, he said. “We’re confident that the Supreme Court will reverse” the ruling, Wong said.

Gun-rights activists, including the National Rifle Association and Alan Gottlieb of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation, filed the lawsuit against Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who last month certified I-1639 for the ballot.

Gottlieb, the NRA and others have argued that I-1639’s petitions violated state law because they did not include text formatting such as underlines and strike-throughs to demonstrate how exactly the initiative would change the language of existing gun laws.

Gottlieb, who last month filed a similar, unsuccessful legal challenge to block the initiative, on Friday cheered Dixon’s ruling.

“We got our day in court,” Gottlieb said. “We expected it. We won.”

If it gets to Washington’s November ballot and voters approve it, I-1639 would add a host of regulations. Among others, it would require enhanced background checks, waiting periods and training in order to obtain them semiautomatic rifles.

The measure also implements a provision to require owners to keep their firearms secured at home. Owners could face misdemeanor or felony charges in certain circumstances if someone prohibited from obtaining a weapon got access to the firearm.

Any one of those policies rankle gun-rights activists, who have argued such restrictions would not stop gun violence, or are violations of the Constitution.

The Legislature in recent years has remained deadlocked over, or unwilling to pass, most big gun-policy proposals. That has made the ballot box the place where gun policy has been decided.

By wide margins, Washington voters in 2014 and 2016 approved ballot measures to expand gun-purchase background checks and implement an extreme risk-protection order. That order created a process for law-enforcement officers, family and others to ask a judge to keep guns out of the hands of someone deemed a risk to themselves or others.

With I-1639, gun-safety advocates have argued that people who signed the petitions understood what the proposal would do, and that the gun-rights groups were trying to stop the initiative because they disagreed with the policy.

In a court filing, the campaign acknowledged that an error by a contractor resulted in the omission of those strike-through lines. But the campaign argued that the law doesn’t require those lines and that the petitions showed all of the language of the proposed initiative.

“Every word in the measure appears on the petition … including all new provisions of law and deletions to current law,” according to the campaign’s legal filing. And, “Deletions are indicated by enclosure in double parentheses.”

If it makes the ballot, it remains to be seen whether gun-rights activists will pull together a well-funded opposition campaign. The NRA has formed a political committee to oppose the measure, according to state campaign-finance records, and donated $100,000 to the cause.

But the I-1639 campaign has raised more than $4.3 million, with top-dollar contributions from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul Allen.

Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun-violence prevention group formed by billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has also contributed $250,000.