On a recent Saturday morning, Chris Thobaben sat in a conference room with volunteers for the Yes on 1639 Campaign calling Washingtonians and urging them to vote.
Thobaben is running as a Democrat for state representative in Washington’s 18th legislative district, and he’s promoting a ballot measure that will raise the legal age for buying certain kinds of rifles to 21 and require gun owners to secure their weapons.
Thobaben doesn’t fit the stereotype of a gun control advocate: He’s an officer in the Marine Corps. He’s a gun owner. He takes his kids hunting.
Still, he thinks some of the basic safety measures they apply in the Marines should also apply to the public.
“I’ve been singularly focused on reasonable approaches that don’t remove the 2nd Amendment,” he said. “It’s the law of the land, and it’s who we are.”
Initiative 1639, which voters will decide this fall, would require gun owners to ensure children can’t access their weapons and make adults criminally liable if a child hurts someone with a gun that should have been secured.
Recent history suggests Washington voters support tougher gun laws. Yet no conversation about guns is easy, or free from intense emotion.
In his one-on-one interactions with people, Thobaben says it’s often easy to come to agreement about gun regulations. But turning casual conversations into firm policy is a challenge.
“Scaling conversations is one of the most challenging things,” he said. “You could have consensus amongst 99 and if one person is louder than anybody else you all of a sudden don’t feel like you have any sense of consensus.”
On that particular point, at least some gun owners agree.
Dale Feathers owns Cascade Firearms and Supply in Vancouver. He’s been in the gun business for 25 years and says the conversation around guns has changed significantly in that time.
“There were never any issues like there are these days,” he said. “I believe a lot of it is social media. I really do.”
Feathers says social media brings out the worst in people, because it’s easy to get angry and hurl insults from behind a computer screen.
And anger is contagious.
“It’s really easy to get other people on board and get them in the same mind frame,” he said.
Still, Feathers is against Initiative 1639 and generally skeptical of any new gun regulations.
“They should enforce the laws that are on the books,” he said. “It’s illegal for someone to try to buy a firearm that can’t own one, but they don’t do anything about it.”
Feathers said the system can be improved. He suggested, as an example, a system in which gun sellers could add notes about a suspicious customer in the national background check system. That would prevent someone from being turned down from one gun store and then heading down the street to another one.
Still, he’s not sure his peers would support even that type of change.
“Us in the firearms industry don’t like to see restrictions put on anything,” he said. “Because now that that’s gone, they want something else.”
Thobaben is sympathetic to that perspective. He says more rationale, reasonable conversations about guns are the key toward consensus.
He encourages gun owners to take their friends to the range or out hunting to show them that guns can be used safely. And he says gun control advocates should spend time with their gun-owning friends to educate themselves about guns and help gun owners understand that their goal is to prevent unnecessary deaths, not simply take away legally owned weapons.
Individual encounters are especially important in an age when so much misinformation is so readily available and increasingly widespread.
In his store, Feathers points to information on a flyer distributed by a group campaigning against Initiative 1639 as reasons he’s against it.
But much of the flyer is wrong or misleading.
For example, it says the law would require a gun buyer to waive his medical privacy rights for life. That’s not in the proposed legislation.
“The reality is purchasing a handgun right now requires you to waive specific information about whether you are currently involuntarily committed to a mental health institution,” said Stephen Paolini, who runs the yes campaign. “Our law simply applies that also to semiautomatic assault rifles.”
The political landscape might be changing. In the past, the National Rifle Association has spent enormous amounts of money in Washington supporting pro-gun candidates and to defeat gun control laws.
The organization spent nearly half a million dollars in 2014 trying to defeat Initiative 594, which established the state’s universal background checks.
Two years later, Washingtonians passed Initiative 1491 to allow court orders removing guns from the homes of people deemed a risk to themselves or others.
The NRA spent close to nothing in that race.
Paolini says the NRA’s decision to step back from Washington campaigns is impacting the broader conversation.
“Over the last five years, their reputation, their power has decreased significantly,” he said. “With that, I can now have more conversations than I would previously with the average gun owner.”
But as one megaphone is grows smaller, another one is getting larger.
A group of deep-pocketed donors that includes Microsoft cofounder and Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg have given more than $2 million to support Yes on 1639.
The conversation remains as divided as ever.
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