This Is What Positive Political Change Looks Like

The words “gridlock” and “politicians” have seemingly been grafted together over the last twenty years. This is a rare, bipartisan complaint among voters: “those bums in [insert ‘Washington DC’ or the state capitol of your choice here] can never get anything done.” No matter the topic—revenue, infrastructure, education—people love to grumble about the supposed unyielding stalemate of their elected leaders.

Gun violence has particularly frustrated us. As wave after wave of highly publicized mass shootings swept across the nation, Americans responded to political inaction with anger, and then disgust, and finally hopelessness. By the time the Sandy Hook massacre happened, most Americans felt as though their leaders weren’t leading, and with the national Republican Party under the sway of the National Rifle Association, it seemed unlikely that anything would ever change.

But if you’re paying attention, you’ll find clear signs of hope all around us. Though we usually recall political change arriving in moments of great, sweeping victory, the truth is that norms and laws change over time, through immense amounts of planning and work. Everyone remembers the day that the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage legal across the United States. It was such a dramatic, cathartic moment that it’s easy to forget the years of work volunteered by the millions of people who made that moment possible.

It’s happening again. Slowly and steadily, Washington state is transforming the debate on gun responsibility. If you look back over the years since Sandy Hook, you’ll notice a clear and deliberate course of action against gun violence and toward commonsense gun laws that make life in the state better for everyone.

Like any great political movement, this story begins with the people. In November of 2014, the voters of Washington state overwhelmingly approved Initiative 594, a measure that required background checks for every person buying a gun in Washington state. The successful campaign for 594—it passed with nearly 60 percent of the vote—represented the first significant defeat of the NRA’s moneyed interests in a generation.

Two years later, initiative 1491, which made it possible for courts to issue “extreme risk protection orders” preventing dangerous people from gaining access to firearms, passed in Washington by an even higher margin, nearly topping out at 70 percent of the popular vote. These were two clear-cut victories for common sense, addressing some of the most permissive, unsafe loopholes in our laws.

Some cynics might roll their eyes at the initiative process as a way to confront gun violence. “Of course the people want safer and saner gun laws,” they might say. “But not every state has an initiative process, and you can’t resolve the larger issues by taking a vote to the people every time.” And here’s where we traditionally start to hear those fused-together words I mentioned earlier: “politicians” and “gridlock.” Why even bother fighting, the most defeatist of us might say, when our leaders won’t lead?

Here’s the good news: our leaders have gotten the message.

Last week, surrounded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, law enforcement officials, and survivors of gun violence, Governor Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1501 into law. Also known as the Law Enforcement and Victims Safety Bill, 1501 notifies law enforcement and victims—particularly domestic violence victims—if someone with a history of violent incidents tries to buy a gun.

As it stands now, if a domestic violence abuser attempts to buy a gun, the existing background check structure would deny him from buying that gun. But that information—the fact that someone with a proven history of violence tried to buy a deadly weapon—previously went nowhere. That lack of communication put the lives of police officers and survivors of abuse at risk.

With 1501 in place, violence survivors and law enforcement personnel—those most at risk of gun violence—will be safer. And furthermore, the bill requires that the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs annually produce a report on the number of prohibited people who try to buy firearms, the categories those attempted purchasers fall into (for instance, if they didn’t realize they were prohibited from purchase) and any information on law enforcement followup to the notification. This will enable us to see the benefits of the law and to better understand stress points on the background check system.

The passage of 1501 is the kind of action that just three years ago people were saying would never happen in America. But it happened, and it happened with surprisingly little fanfare or conflict. Earlier this week, I talked with Alliance for Gun Responsibility CEO Renée Hopkins about the work that went into taking 1501 from concept to reality in a single year—breakneck speed in Washington state.

“What was really important about this particular policy,” Hopkins explains, “is that we had such broad support for our coalition.” The bill was spearheaded by Republican state representative Dave Hayes and Democratic state representative Drew Hansen, and Hopkins credits them for bringing together a team including the Alliance, domestic violence advocates, domestic violence survivors, and the law enforcement community to get the bill passed.

So how do you break through the dreaded partisan gridlock? Hopkins cites the groundswell of popular support for initiatives 594 and 1491, which she says “provided the momentum and the cover for our legislative champions to really take things to the next level.” When the people send such a clear message to their leaders, that message is impossible to ignore. In this legislative session, she says, “the climate has changed in terms of gun violence prevention because of all the things that have been done over the last few years. It’s no longer the third rail in politics.” She says representatives are “finally seeing that they have to do something—that their constituents are requiring them to do something.”

Politicians are one thing. How do you build a bipartisan coalition of cops, prosecutors, domestic abuse advocates, and a gun responsibility organization to help pass legislation that a few years ago would have died before it was even written? “Drew Hansen was really, really proactive about developing a policy that would be appealing to people across the aisle,” Hopkins says, calling 1501 “the most common sense policy you could possibly imagine.” Hansen worked closely with Alliance lobbyist and “policy development guru” Rebecca Johnson, who Hopkins describes as “one of the leaders of the entire country in policy development in gun violence prevention.”

A lot of effort went into the crafting of the bill to make it as smart and as effective as possible. Hopkins says that laws like 1501 which alert law enforcement when dangerous people try to buy guns are often discussed in gun violence prevention circles. But it was important to everyone that the bill included provisions to alert survivors and to collect and publish the data. “In Washington—in this Washington,” Hopkins jokes, “we like to go the extra mile.”

“One of the things that we know is often laws are passed and it takes some time for implementation to occur,” Hopkins explains. She says the annual report aspect of the law “will also provide some accountability to the public for ensuring that when dangerous people are trying to access firearms that something’s done.” That appealed to everyone in the coalition, and reminded them of the urgency of their work.

Hopkins says the Alliance has worked for years to show law enforcement—by which she means a broad coalition including police, judges, and prosecutors—that they’re listening and responding to their concerns. It’s important for organizations like the Alliance, Hopkins says, to show that “we don’t care about just getting laws passed—we also care about supporting the stakeholders that actually have to implement the laws.” By having law enforcement at the table from the outset, they drafted a better, more useful bill.

So what does the work of passing a bill entail? The secret weapon, Hopkins says, is connecting “constituents that care” with their lawmakers. “We brought 387 constituents to the legislature for nearly 8000 in-person contacts [with their representatives], which is amazing,” she explains. “The Alliance made 6200 volunteer calls during the session and then we delivered more than 24,000 email contacts.”

And “beyond the numbers,” Hopkins says the most important part is that “we had at least one in-person contact to every single legislator from one of their constituents. So they’re not just hearing from random Washingtonians, they’re hearing from people in their districts that this issue matters.”

So now that the bill passed the legislature and has been signed into law by Governor Inslee, what’s next for this coalition? Hopkins says her efforts are focused on maintaining the relationships that have been forged in the efforts to pass 1501. Additionally, “we’re really starting to build out our chapters in each area of the state,” eventually covering all of Washington in nine chapters of the Alliance. Each of those chapters will be staffed with engaged and energized volunteers who she says are “turning their efforts to municipal action as well as to some of the legislative races and local races” for 2017 and beyond.

Perhaps most importantly, Hopkins says, the Alliance must continue to develop policies that make sense “whether you consider yourself a conservative or a progressive, a Democrat or a Republican.” Washington’s steady battle against gun violence demonstrates how you get things done in a time of extreme political gridlock: you move one mountain at a time. If you hold tight to your principles and you listen to the people, it gets a little easier with every step.

Paul Constant

Comments are closed.