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Wednesday, November 5, 1997 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Initiative 676 -- Handgun Proposal Is Trounced -- Voters Reject Measure By More Than 2 To 1 After Lopsided Campaign

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

BELLEVUE - The campaign against Initiative 676 had just begun when the National Rifle Association brought out Charlton Heston and NRA leaders for a rally at the Wintergarden.

Inside a two-story atrium building, police officers, politicians and the former Hollywood actor worked 3,000 people into a dither over the proposal for handgun licensing and trigger locks. A handful of initiative supporters felt so overwhelmed by the cascade of emotion that they stood outside the building, meekly waving signs and whispering to television cameras. It was a fitting metaphor for a campaign that seemed lopsided almost from the beginning.

Yesterday, NRA leaders and gun-rights advocates celebrated their most important - and biggest - victory in a state election since 1982, when they defeated a similar initiative in California.

"This shows that Washington voters really understood what this was about because it had nothing to do with safety," NRA lobbyist Tanya Metaksa said of the proposal. "It would have led to no self-protection, no defense and no privacy."

Yesterday's trouncing was, for some, a day of the inevitable. Washington voters rejected the proposal by more than a 2-1 margin, and in every county of the state. In rural counties such as Adams, Benton and Okanogan, it was defeated by margins as wide as 9-1.

The initiative would have mandated trigger locks and required 1 million handgun owners to take a test or safety-training course to

obtain a state license.

Supported and crafted by civic leaders from Seattle as an attempt to reduce accidental shootings among children, the handgun initiative didn't even hold King County.

Outspent I-676 supporters, gathered at a Belltown pub, blamed the NRA's money - two-thirds of the $3.4 million spent - and media campaign for their loss.

"This is a long march, . . . but whether it's a year from now, or five years from now, we are going to have handgun safety in this state," said Tom Wales, co-chairman of the initiative campaign.

Initiative supporters say they will go back to the Legislature next year to seek a safe-storage bill and will begin using a new political-action committee to support legislators and candidates who favor gun control.

If nothing else, says Bruce Gryniewski, executive director of Washington Ceasefire, the I-676 campaign has raised public awareness about the danger of handguns stored in homes and provoked discussion of trigger locks.

But it was the NRA's night to celebrate victory.

After years of watching her group take its licks in national politics, NRA lobbyist Metaksa is feeling upbeat about the gun lobby's future.

"I have never, in my 25 years with the association, seen the amount of grass-roots support we saw with this campaign," she said, beaming.

It seemed, from the beginning, a battle of philosophies.

Supporters had argued that more regulation was needed to limit gun access to children, and opponents contended that the proposal was a veiled attempt to dilute people's constitutional rights to own handguns. It was a campaign thrown into the national spotlight, as both sides trotted out national figures and civic leaders to lead their cause.

While supporters turned to Bill Gates and Seattle's liberal establishment for donations and to Sarah and Jim Brady for moral inspiration, opponents of the initiative brought in NRA leaders and Heston to help map strategy and motivate gun owners across the state.

Opponents always seemed to have the upper hand as proponents saw their eight-page proposal come under the microscope of gun owners and the media. Though supporters had hoped to frame their campaign around children and handgun safety, opponents kept them on the defensive for weeks, forcing them to answer questions about language on provisions for stalking victims and medical records.

By the end, the arguments were not so much about ways to save children's lives as arguments about who had more cops on their side.

The biggest turnaround was among women. Early polls showed strong support among female voters, but opponents raised enough doubts about licensing and training requirements that they eliminated any gender gap that existed.

Seattle pollster Stuart Elway, who conducted a poll of voters for The Times the weekend before the election, said opponents' ads swayed many voters against the initiative.

"The more voters learned about it, the less they liked it."

While acknowledging that the NRA's war chest was a key factor in their victory, gun-rights advocates say initiative supporters hurt themselves by writing a complicated proposal that involved much more than trigger locks. Anti-676 leaders were developing campaign strategy by mid-July and nimbly used law-enforcement officials to make their arguments, leaving NRA officials more in the background to energize the troops.

Law-enforcement and local gun-rights groups have vowed to seek safe-storage legislation next year, too. But whether the NRA will give its blessing remains unknown. Metaksa said she doesn't feel compelled to do anything "until I read the bill."

If the initiative held national symbolism as a litmus test on voters' feelings toward gun control, the gun-rights supporters are ready to bury it as a national movement.

Said Metaksa: "If I were on the other side, I would certainly think twice about trying this someplace else."

Copyright (c) 1997 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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