WASHINGTON >> The gun control movement, blocked in Congress and facing mounting losses in federal elections, is tweaking its name, refining its goals and using the same-sex marriage movement as a model to take the fight to voters on the state level.
After a victory in November on a Washington state ballot measure that will require broader background checks on gun buyers, groups that promote gun regulations have turned away from Washington and the political races that have been largely futile. Instead, they are turning their attention – and their growing wallets – to other states that allow ballot measures.
An initiative seeking stricter background checks for certain purchasers has already qualified for the 2016 ballot in Nevada, where such a law was passed last year by the Legislature then vetoed by the governor. Advocates of gun safety – the term many now use instead of "gun control" – are seeking lines on ballots in Arizona, Maine and Oregon as well.
"I can’t recall ballot initiatives focused on gun policy," said Daniel Webster, the director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "There wasn’t the money." Colorado and Oregon approved ballot measures on background checks at gun shows after the Columbine school massacre in 1999, but the movement stalled after that.
The National Rifle Association, which raises millions of dollars a year largely from small donors and has one of the most muscular state lobbying apparatuses in the country, is well attuned to its foes’ shift in focus. "We will be wherever they are to challenge them," said Andrew Arulanandam, the group’s spokesman.
The new focus on ballot initiatives comes after setbacks in Congress and in statehouses. After the 2012 mass shooting of schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama’s effort to pass a background-check measure never got out of the Democratic-controlled Senate. Although 10 states have passed major gun control legislation, not only in Connecticut and New York but also as far away as Colorado, more states have loosened gun restrictions.
Candidates who backed gun control mostly lost in the midterm elections, even after groups spent millions on their behalf. The last setback came in December when Martha McSally, a Republican, prevailed in a razor-thin recount over a Democratic incumbent, Rep. Ron Barber of Arizona. Barber was wounded in the 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and lost even though Giffords’ PAC, Americans For Responsible Solutions, spent more than $2 million in the race.
Gun control groups say that although they are still dwarfed by the NRA, they have more money and are involved in more grass-roots activism than ever before. The NRA was even heavily outspent in the Washington state referendum.
The advocacy groups have recast their cause as a public health and safety movement, and are homing in on areas where polling has shown voter support, like expanded background checks and keeping guns out of the hands of people with domestic violence convictions, restraining orders or mental illnesses.
Some of those provisions have gained steam even in heavily Republican-controlled state governments, like those in Louisiana and Wisconsin.
"Things that people feel are most doable politically right now are connected to domestic violence," Webster said. "There is a lot of uptick on that issue even in red states and states with a lot of guns." In the past two years, 11 states have passed such legislation.
Closing loopholes on background checks for gun owners is an area Americans support far more than steps like curbs on assault weapons or limits on magazine sizes.
A recent Pew survey, for instance, showed that 52 percent of respondents said they believed it was more important to protect gun ownership rights. That figure was up from 29 percent in 2000. Still, in a 2013 poll, Pew found that nearly 75 percent of respondents supported background-check expansions.
Gun control advocates believe that ensuring background checks for the majority of gun buyers is the foundation of all other existing laws. "The reason voters support these laws is the same reason the movement supports these laws," said Laura Cutilletta, a senior lawyer for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
The same-sex marriage movement has been a model for advocates of new gun restrictions. As with gay marriage, background-check expansions enjoy far broader public support in polls than among elected officials, and they affect state residents immediately.
"The arc of the marriage-equality movement started in the federal government, and got them the Defense of Marriage Act," said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control group backed by Michael R. Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York City. "Then they went to the states and showed that if you can get the majority of the public on your side state by state, that will influence the courts and Congress in the end."