Gun-control advocates hope recent wins signal changing tide
PORTLAND — It's long been conventional wisdom that fighting for gun control is a good way to end a politician's career.
But advocates of tighter gun laws are pointing to a pair of victories in the Pacific Northwest as evidence that the tide is shifting.
Last year in Washington, voters overwhelmingly supported mandatory background checks on private gun sales. Lawmakers in Oregon approved similar legislation this year, and last week it became clear there wouldn't be political consequences. Gun-rights supporters were unable to gather enough signatures to force recall elections for the bill's supporters.
"We are seeing it again and again, that this is actually a winning issue and you can vote to protect the American public and make the American public safe, and your political career will flourish," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group backed by millions from billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor.
Gun-rights supporters scoff at the idea that their political power is eroding. While gun control advocates have notched a string of successes since the 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary, they've come largely in battleground or left-leaning states. Changes at the national level have stalled. And conservative states have gone toward fewer gun restrictions.
"Once again we see Michael Bloomberg funded gun control groups lie and distort the facts in an effort to further their anti-gun agenda," said Lars Dalseide, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association.
The NRA and other gun rights advocacy groups have spent the past two decades pushing state legislatures to adopt laws friendly to gun owners, such as less restrictive policies on concealed weapons and protections for using a gun in self-defense. Gun-control advocates have only recently started taking a similar track, focusing on victories at the state level, said Harry Wilson, a Roanoke University professor who wrote the 2015 book "The Triumph of the Gun Rights Argument."
"What we saw after Sandy Hook, states that tended to have very strict laws made their laws even more strict," said Wilson, director of the Institute for Policy and Opinion Research at the Virginia university. "But states that tended to have lenient laws in many cases made their laws even less strict. States continued on the path that they've run."
The new Oregon law requires gun buyers and sellers who aren't related to visit a licensed firearm dealer who can conduct a background check. If the buyer passes, the gun can be sold.
Gun rights advocates — who say the law infringes on their rights — began collecting signatures in an effort to recall four of the lawmakers who supported the bill. Three of the movements quickly fizzled, but organizers of a recall targeting the bill's primary sponsor, Democratic Sen. Floyd Prozanksi of Eugene, collected more than 10,000 signatures. Last week, state elections officials ruled that more 15 percent or more were invalid and the organizers fell 200 short of the threshold to require a recount.
The Legislature's approval came only after Democrats — with the help of money from gun-control interest groups — expanded their legislative majorities in the 2014 election.
Kevin Starrett, head of the Oregon Firearms Federation, which funded the recall attempt, said gun-control advocates are reading too much into the recall's failure. According to the secretary of state's count, it barely fell short even after getting no money or support from national gun-rights groups, he said.
Washington state voters last year overwhelmingly supported an initiative to require background checks on all gun sales, including private transactions that don't involve relatives.
Colorado's Legislature approved stricter gun laws following the 2012 shooting at an Aurora movie theater. Two Democratic lawmakers who supported the bill were recalled in 2013, a move that sparked concern among Democrats that they could lose their job if they earn the wrath of the NRA by supporting gun restrictions. But groups seeking tougher gun laws point out that Democrats won those seats back in the next election.