THE TRACE.COM October 12, 2020 – In 2016, a group of gun safety activists in Ohio decided they wanted to get a universal background check initiative on the 2020 ballot. Similar initiatives that expanded background checks to private gun sales had just been passed by voters in Washington State and Nevada, and the group, Ohioans for Gun Safety, wanted to replicate their success.
The all-volunteer staff spent more than a year conducting a listening campaign, during which they surveyed gun owners at gatherings across Ohio. They spent another year crafting language with the help of national gun reform groups and legal experts. They got the mayors of Cincinnati and Dayton on board. They gathered 2,000 signatures to file the proposal, then moved on to the final step: collecting more than 250,000 signatures. In December, they decided to shoot for the 2021 ballot, instead, to give themselves more time. Then the coronavirus hit.
The state Health Department issued a shutdown order in April. Collecting signatures became too risky for Ohioans for Gun Safety’s volunteers, who skew older. Four years of work was put on hold until 2022 — at least. “We have overcome so many hurdles, but we never anticipated a pandemic,” Anne Wallace, one of the campaign’s organizers, told The Trace. The 2020 election marks the first time in six years that a gun reform initiative will not appear on a state ballot anywhere in the United States.
Ballot initiatives have been used by both lawmakers and advocates in recent years as an end-run around Republican-dominated legislatures and statehouses that refuse to tighten gun regulations. They are part of a broad trend toward direct democracy by left-leaning activists who have had success with measures addressing the minimum wage, medical marijuana, felon re-enfranchisement, and Medicare expansion. But COVID-19 has made signature collecting — a crucial step in the ballot initiative process — a dangerous undertaking.
The Republican-dominated Ohio General Assembly is at a stalemate over guns, refusing to take up even the modest reforms — including a voluntary background check expansion — proposed by GOP Governor Mike DeWine in response to last year’s mass shooting outside a Dayton bar.
There is a slight chance that the state government could flip, or at the very least that Republicans could lose their supermajority, after the House speaker was indicted on bribery and racketeering charges in July. But the ballot initiative process offered Ohioans for Gun Safety a chance to pass gun regulations without relying on political contests. Signature collection is the final step in that process.
“Really effective signature drives depend on large crowds of people being able to gather, whether at state fairs or music festivals or political events,” Wallace said. “If those don’t occur until 2022, we may not be able to reactivate the campaign until then.”
In the meantime, Ohioans for Gun Safety is securing future signatories through an online tool called commit-to-sign, which lets supporters sign up to be notified when signature collection restarts. [full article]