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Gun control wins in Washington State

Gun-reform groups claimed a victory in Washington during the first major election cycle since 26 people were killed inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.
Supporters cheer as results come in at an election night party for Initiative 594, a measure seeking universal background checks on gun sales and transfers, on Nov. 4, 2014, in Seattle.
Supporters cheer as results come in at an election night party for Initiative 594, a measure seeking universal background checks on gun sales and transfers, on Nov. 4, 2014, in Seattle.

Gun control definitively won in Tuesday's elections — in Washington, at least.

In the only state where a gun issue was directly on a ballot this week, Washington residents passed Initiative 594, the measure that will require criminal background checks on all firearms sales and transfers in the state, including at gun shows and on the Internet. The proposal, more commonly referred to as "I-594," gained 60% of voter support, according to the NBC News Election Unit.

A rival campaign, Initiative 591, would have blocked the implementation of background checks, if passed. But more than half — 55% — of the state's residents rejected the competing measure, which was backed by the gun lobby.

This year marked the first major election cycle since 26 people, including 20 first-graders, were shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut, on Dec. 14, 2012. The outcome on Tuesday made Washington the seventh state to require background checks on all gun sales, and the fifth (after Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, and New York) to do so since the shooting inside Sandy Hook Elementary School.

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Federal law requires licensed firearms dealers to perform background checks on prospective purchasers and to maintain records of the sales. But unlicensed private sellers — online and at gun shows, for example — are not required to observe the same policies. And about 40% of firearms sold in the country are transferred by such private sellers, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Tuesday marked the first time since 2000 that Americans cast ballots directly on background checks. In the previous vote, citizens in Colorado and Oregon overwhelmingly passed laws to extend the safety protocol.

"When it comes to guns, the only Washington that mattered this election was Washington State," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety. "The [National Rifle Association] might be able to intimidate Washington, D.C., and state legislators, but they don't intimidate American voters."

The GOP gained at least six seats in the Senate and now control both chambers of Congress. Gun rights groups and supporters commended the nationwide Republican victories in Tuesday's elections.

"The incoming Republican and Democratic politicians are on notice — nothing short of full protection of our Second Amendment rights will be accepted," Dudley Brown, president of the National Association for Gun Rights, said Wednesday in a statement.

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The gun lobby previously successfully blocked efforts in the Washington legislature in 2013 and 2014 to pass background checks. In those instances, residents were not able to vote directly on the measure. Early last year, though, hundreds of thousands of Washington residents began pushing for Initiative 594 to appear on the ballot this week. Everytown spent more than $4 million on the state's measure, which received funds from 10,000 donors. On Wednesday morning, Everytown's leaders said the victory represents "a new frontier" to defeat the gun lobby. Bill and Melinda Gates, two big-name billionaires who usually refrain from political involvement, donated $1 million this past summer to the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, the reform group that sponsored the measure.

Zach Silk, campaign manager for the Washington Alliance, called the outcome a "historic and enormous victory for common-sense gun laws."

Federal lawmakers failed to pass a bipartisan background checks bill last year in the months following the shooting at Sandy Hook. But in May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved an amendment to boost funding for background checks. The Senate will likely consider its own version of the measure before conferencing with the House to produce a final piece of legislation later this year.

Less than two weeks ago, an alleged gunman opened fire at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington, killing four classmates and himself. Local officials, including the police chief, called on the community and the entire country to make societal changes to prevent future mass shootings.

Washington received a "C" grade in last year's state scorecard on gun control published jointly by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The state ranked 13th out of 50 for enacting gun control laws in the wake of the massacre in Newtown. A huge majority — 92% — of Americans said they support conducting background checks for all gun purchases, according to a poll released in July. Just 7% of the public disapproved.

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The public desire for increased gun control may not be limited to Washington. Silk told reporters on Wednesday that he believes the model could be adopted by other states. Everytown is gathering signatures in Nevada, where reform groups expect background checks to qualify as a valid initiative for the state legislature to vote on next year, according to Feinblatt. If lawmakers fail to pass the measure, Everytown will take the issue to the ballot in the 2016 election. The group will also push for similar measures in other states, including Arizona and Maine.

The way to move Washington, Feinblatt added, is to transfer an issue to the state level. He compared such a move to the success of gay rights as judges in multiple states continue to strike decades-old bans on same-sex marriage.

"We plan to keep building on this exciting momentum, taking this issue directly to voters in more states and showing the gun lobby ‘lap dogs’ in statehouses and Congress exactly where the American people stand," said Dan Gross, president of the Brady Campaign.

"Make no mistake," he added, "this is a huge victory for the gun violence prevention movement and for every American who wants to live in a safer nation."