I-1639 would establish waiting periods and new background checks on these guns.
I-1639 would establish waiting periods and new background checks on these guns. Getty

Will some careless campaign work and a few missing strikethroughs stop Washingtonians from voting on one of the most comprehensive gun reform measures in the country?

It’s up to the Washington State Supreme Court to decide after a Thurston County judge threw out Initiative 1639 on Friday over a technicality. The case is now going to Washington’s highest court, which will hopefully rule on the case before ballots have to be printed early next month.

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Nearly 380,000 people signed I-1639, over 100,000 more than required, and the Secretary of State certified the initiative, so why did Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon throw out the far-reaching gun control measure? Dixon threw out the measure because of a paltry technicality: the initiative's fine print was missing a few strikethroughs and the text was, according to him, too small.

Washington law requires that petitions carry the full text of the law they intend to change, requiring that the text is “readable, full, true, and correct” for anyone signing the initiative. The text on the back of I-1639 petition sheets had all of the correct words however it was missing certain strikethroughs, rendering it incorrect in Dixon’s opinion. The judge also ruled that the text was too small to be considered “readable.”

At one point in Friday’s hearing, Dixon emphatically held up a copy of the petition, in a way similar to how my father holds a menu at a particularly dark restaurant and said he couldn’t read the text of the petition.

“I have 20-20 vision, I can’t read it… I simply cannot read it,” Dixon said.

Judge Dixon cant read the menu.
Judge Dixon can't read the menu. TVW

Lawyers for the initiative immediately appealed the ruling and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case this week. Lorrie Thompson, a spokesperson for the Washington Courts, said the court is already taking briefs in the case and will likely reach a decision before the end of the month.

“It’s on an extremely expedited schedule, the briefings are all due this week which is kind of crazy but there you go,” Thompson said.

Tallman Trask, a spokesperson for the Alliance on Gun Responsibility which is backing the initiative, said decades of case law have established that small typos shouldn’t invalidate an otherwise acceptable initiative. Trask said the missing strikethroughs did not cause any confusion.

“These aren’t material issues that change the nature of the petition or what it means and there isn’t any evidence in the record that anyone was confused,” Trask said.

Hugh Spitzer, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law, said that the Washington Supreme Court has historically not kept initiatives “away from voters based on technicalities.”

“Bottom line is our supreme court does not like keeping things from the voters,” Spitzer said. “They might come back later and say there was a defect but they don’t like keeping it off the ballot in the first place.”

Initiative 1639 would increase a wide range of gun control measures, including raising the minimum age to purchase a gun to 21, substantially increase background checks for semiautomatic weapons, require new firearm storage requirements, and require customers to wait ten business days before they can buy a semiautomatic weapon.

The measure is the most far-reaching gun control initiative in the state’s recent history and has freaked out gun rights fanatics like Alan Gottlieb, the founder of Bellevue’s Second Amendment Foundation, which unsuccessfully tried to get an injunction to stop I-1639 in July. Gottlieb, who like the NRA has close connections with people accused of being Russian spies, told the News Tribune that the measure was a "a gun prohibitionist's wish list so to speak."

Both Gottlieb and the NRA are plaintiffs in this current case that has derailed I-1639.

Now the I-1639 campaign is playing the waiting game, hoping the Supreme Court can rule in their favor before November’s ballots go to the printer early next month. Trask said the campaign expects a decision in time.

“I think the Secretary of State has been pretty clear about their desire for that and the Supreme Court has been aggressive in expediting this as quickly as possible. Briefs are due this week, Oral arguments, if there are any, will be due early next week,” Trask said. “I think that puts us on a timeline to potentially have a decision before the end of August. I think that’s great.”

Trask said they are “cautiously optimistic” that the Supreme Court will rule in their favor.

“The court has a long history of making sure that the initiative process favors the will of the people and the voters,” Trask said. “And it’s been really clear that over time they have generally sided with leaving petitions on the ballot pretty much no matter what. There’s a history of pretty significant errors, more than formatting issues.”

Spitzer said there have been a number of cases where significant typos existed on a petition and the initiative was still allowed to move forward. Lawyers for the initiative cite a 1977 case in their filings where the Supreme Court ruled that the citizen’s right to initiatives should not be limited by “technical statutory provisions or technical construction thereof” any further than what is needed to “guard against fraud and mistake.”

This seems to clearly support I-1639: The people signing the petition were knowingly exercising their right to petition their government, regardless of any missing strikethroughs or small text.

The initiative’s backers, which have spent over $4 million on the campaign, could have prevented this whole mess if they had just copied the correct text onto petitions. Trask said the problem occurred from a “copy and paste” error during printing.

“It’s unfortunate that mistakes were made and it’s unfortunate that things happened with the formatting,” Trask said. “I wish it hadn’t happened.”

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Trask said he didn’t know if the campaign had studied how large the text needed to be before they printed the petitions.

“I’m not sure if it’s something that was really considered,” Trask said.

It's worth noting that the gun fanatics are not winning this fight because they are convincing voters that gun control is unneeded or ineffective, they are fighting purely on technical grounds. Perhaps they are hanging their hopes on a few missing strikethroughs precisely because they know they can't convince voters that waiting ten days for a killing machine is entirely reasonable.