Gun measures have had mixed results at the ballot. More than 70 percent of Washington state voters rejected a 1997 initiative campaign that would have required handgun owners to pass a safety course. After the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, voters in Colorado and Oregon approved ballot measures the next year to require background checks for buying weapons at gun shows.
Following another massacre in Colorado earlier this year, state lawmakers approved a bill to expand background checks to private transactions and online purchases. A similar expansion plan in Oregon is stalled in the state Senate.
Some states don't see initiatives as a viable option right now. In Missouri, state Rep. Stacey Newman has been pushing for background checks with little success. While she spoke positively about the idea of a ballot initiative, she said there's no serious consideration of it because of the cost and coordination required just to get it on the ballot. Instead, the supporters of background checks in the state are simply working to prevent NRA-supported legislation from passing the state's General Assembly.
"We're continually on defense," she said.
Gun buyers currently must undergo a background check when they purchase a weapon from a federally licensed firearms dealer but can avoid checks through private purchases or at some gun shows.
Washington state advocates believe polls show the public is sufficiently on the side of expanding background checks further. An independent Elway Poll conducted two months ago found that 79 percent of registered voters in Washington state supported background checks on all gun sales, including private transactions.
That wasn't enough to shepherd the bill through the Legislature. Even in the state House, which is controlled by Democrats, supporters fell short after an NRA campaign put pressure on some lawmakers. Pedersen had offered concessions through the process, including the option of sending the measure out for a public vote and exemptions for people who already have concealed pistol licenses or law enforcement credentials.
Pedersen said he was working with the initiative organizers on language for the proposal, and he said the Legislature would first have another chance to adopt the measure early next year. If it fails among lawmakers again, the proposal would then automatically go to the ballot, where Pedersen said he welcomed a campaign competing against groups like the NRA.
"I'm not afraid of it at all," Pedersen said. "The public is really with us. It's the right policy. I think it can be useful for further progress."