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Background Checks For Gun Sales Look Likely To Pass In Washington

Do you want expanded background checks for gun purchases?

Do you not want expanded background checks for gun purchases?

Those two competing questions will be on the ballot in Washington on Nov. 4. But they won’t be stated so clearly, and earlier this year it looked like voters in the state would say “yes” to both (which doesn’t make sense). Now, however, polls suggest voters have sorted things out and will choose to expand background checks.

Initiative 591 (I-591) would prevent background checks for gun purchases except when required by the federal government. Initiative 594 (I-594) would ensure background checks for all gun purchases, including those conducted online and at gun shows. I-594 looks like it will pass; I-591 looks like it will fail.

The Elway Poll — conducted by Elway Research, a longtime and highly rated pollster — has been tracking voter sentiment throughout the campaign. In its first poll of the campaign, in April, support for I-591 was at 55 percent. Support for I-594 was at 72 percent. Since both measures had majority support, there was talk that the courts would need to intercede after the election to settle the outcome.

But the pro-background-checks measure was polling 17 percentage points higher than the anti- position, indicating a stronger base of support. The Elway Poll smartly asked a follow-up question that probed voters on whether they were in favor of “more extensive background checks for gun sales” or whether they favored “keeping the background check system as it is.” The share in favor of more extensive background checks was 62 percent in April, 61 percent in July and 59 percent in October.

Voters clearly wanted more extensive background checks. Anti-background-checks proponents had to rely on continued confusion.

The campaign, however, has helped to clarify each initiative. Support for I-594 has settled in the latest Elway Poll around where the explicit background-check question suggested it should be — about 60 percent. Meanwhile, I-591 is at 39 percent. Those two numbers, of course, add up to 99 percent; voters have caught on to the different initiatives, and their stated policy preferences match their voting intentions.

The way I-594 vs. I-591 has unfolded has some historical precedent. You may remember that Proposition 8 in California, which sought to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage, was failing in almost all the polls in the lead-up to the 2008 election. Yet — as Gregory B. Lewis of the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies and Charles W. Gossett of California State University, Sacramento, demonstrated — polling throughout the campaign showed that most voters were against same-sex marriage. They were likely confused by the ballot language initially, but eventually settled into the voting choice that matched their policy preference.

Of course, the polling could be off. As FiveThirtyEight contributor Dan Hopkins has found, polling for ballot measures has had an average error of 7.8 percentage points. If we applied that error to the Elway poll in Washington, I-594’s expanded background checks would still pass with 52.2 percent, but it’s close. We also don’t have any polls on the issue since a school shooting at a Washington high school last Friday — an incident that may influence voters.

But if the latest snapshot taken by Elway holds, then stricter gun control is on its way to the Evergreen State.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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