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Originally published Thursday, March 20, 2014 at 7:59 PM

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Gun campaigns prep for costly battle ahead of November vote

Initiative 594 kicked off its campaign for universal background checks with a media event Thursday. Initiative 591, to prevent background-check expansion, launched more quietly with a fundraising email.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Washington state’s dueling gun initiatives launched their opposing campaigns this week, days after the Legislature’s adjournment ensured that voters this year will get to weigh in on gun laws for the first time since 1997.

“The campaign begins today,” declared the Rev. Sandy Brown at a Thursday kickoff featuring faith leaders, local prosecutors, gun-violence survivors and other supporters of Initiative 594, which would extend background-check requirements to private firearm transfers.

“We’re gathered here today because it’s time to change the gun laws in Washington state,” said Brown, of Seattle’s First United Methodist Church, which hosted the event.

Backers of Initiative 591, which would prevent the state from expanding background-check requirements and reiterate that government agencies cannot confiscate firearms without due process, launched more quietly by circulating a fundraising email Wednesday.

“We’re going to hold our ammunition, so to speak, until we’re closer to Election Day,” said sponsor Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Bellevue-based Second Amendment Foundation. “We’re marshaling our forces for Election Day.”

Both sides acknowledged that the fight in advance of the Nov. 4 election is likely to be expensive.

Initiative 594 campaign manager Zach Silk, who previously estimated his effort could cost $12 million, said Thursday his group would raise whatever would be necessary to win.

Initiative 594 has so far received $1.56 million in donations, including $315,000 from venture capitalist Nick Hanauer, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Initiative 591 has gotten $722,000, according to the commission.

It is unclear how much national gun-rights groups such as the National Rifle Association and national gun-control groups such as former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’ Americans for Responsible Solutions, might contribute.

NRA officials and Giffords appeared at public hearings on the initiatives in Olympia in January. But lawmakers, as expected, did not pass either measure — sending them both to the November ballot.

The last time residents voted on gun laws, in 1997, gun rights overwhelmingly defeated gun control in an unsuccessful push to require trigger locks and safety training for owners.

Thursday’s events offered a preview of this year’s campaign.

Both sides focused on two key questions: How much would universal background checks burden gun owners? And how effective would they be at stopping crime?

Speaking at the church kickoff for Initiative 594, Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe opened with a “confession” — “I’m Mark, and I’m a gun guy” — before arguing that gun owners should support the initiative because background checks are a “very minor inconvenience” that saves lives.

Roe said the checks — currently required only in sales from licensed firearms dealers — stop criminals and people with mental illness from getting guns.

He and others acknowledged that the initiative would not dramatically reduce crime.

But “worst-case scenario?” Roe said. “It only prevents a few gun deaths. That’s good enough for me.”

Gottlieb, of the Second Amendment Foundation, argued that criminals would avoid the checks, rendering them an ineffective tool that would harass law-abiding gun owners and divert scarce law-enforcement resources.

He also described Initiative 594 as flawed, saying, “There are all sorts of logistical and enforcement problems in its 18 pages. It’s unworkable.”

Neither side spent much time discussing Initiative 591.

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

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