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Originally published Monday, April 29, 2013 at 8:06 PM

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Coalition announces initiative to expand background checks for gun sales

Gun-control advocates, frustrated with failed legislative efforts, said Monday they’re planning Washington state’s first firearm-related ballot measure since 1997.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Frustrated by failure with state and national lawmakers, local gun-control advocates are turning to the voters.

A coalition of religious leaders, elected officials and activists announced Monday they plan to gather signatures this summer for a 2014 ballot initiative to require background checks for all firearm sales, not just purchases from licensed dealers as in current law.

The initiative, Washington state’s first gun-related ballot measure since 1997, signals a new strategy for advocates who have focused on legislative efforts since last year’s mass shootings at Café Racer in Seattle and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

“We will no longer wait as another family grieves the death of a loved one, as another youth is shot down on our streets,” Seattle Rabbi Daniel Weiner said during an announcement made the day after the Legislature ended its regular session without voting on background checks or several other gun proposals.

“It is time we step up to be heard,” Weiner said.

A spokesman for the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility, which will run the campaign, said organizers chose 2014 over 2013 to give the fledging group more time to build its coalition and coordinate with well-funded national groups.

The spokesman, Christian Sinderman, said gun-related measures may be on the ballot in several states in November 2014.

In Washington, sponsors said the measure would start as an initiative to the Legislature next year.

Lawmakers could approve the proposal, do nothing and thus send it to the ballot or amend it, which would put both the original and the amended versions on the ballot.

Sinderman said the group has not settled on the exact language of what it will propose.

Second Amendment activist Alan Gottlieb said an overly broad measure would trigger the wrath of the state’s gun owners.

Background checks are meant to stop felons and the mentally ill from getting weapons, but some see them as an ineffective burden on law-abiding gun owners and buyers.

Gottlieb, who chairs the Bellevue-based Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, said he would reserve judgment on the potential initiative until seeing its language.

“The devil is always in the details,” Gottlieb said. However, he guessed “it will be an overreach and it won’t get passed.”

That was the result of Washington’s last gun-related ballot measure.

Initiative 676, which would have required trigger locks for handguns, training for gun owners and the creation of gun-safety licenses, got just 29 percent of the vote in 1997 despite leading in the polls for months.

Gun-control advocates are again using polling to argue background checks are popular.

Zach Silk, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility’s campaign manager, said much has changed since 1997.

“We believe we will win,” said Silk, noting the initiative would contain just one proposal — universal background checks — and would get support from national groups like New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns and former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions.

Neither of those groups returned messages seeking comment.

Silk, who managed last year’s $12.5 million referendum campaign to legalize gay marriage, predicted the background-check campaign will seek to raise between $6 million and $12 million.

In a potential sign of how expensive the campaign could be, Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility financier Nick Hanauer said he will spend “as much as necessary" to win.

Hanauer, a wealthy venture capitalist, predicted the National Rifle Association will also spend heavily on the initiative.

“Let them come,” he said.

NRA spokeswoman Jacqueline Otto said the group will not comment until seeing the potential initiative’s final language.

Supporters are planning a May 30 fundraiser. They hope to file the measure next month.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal

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