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One of the big themes of this year's presidential election has been gun control, with Hillary Clinton promising more of it and Donald Trump taking the NRA's position against it. But the fight over guns has been shifting from the federal arena to the states and especially state ballot initiatives. NPR's Martin Kaste has more.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: For gun control activists in Washington state, the problem is the legislature. They say it's just too afraid of the NRA to pass firearm restrictions. So they're going around it. In 2014, they put background checks for private gun sales on the ballot, and it passed. This year, it's a ballot initiative giving judges the power to take guns away from people who are a danger to themselves or others.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: James was deeply troubled. We did everything to get him help.
KASTE: This is one of the ads for the initiative.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We called the police, but there was no crime, so they couldn't stop him from buying firearms. James bought a gun. Then he killed his stepsister and turned the gun on himself. We should have had a way to intervene.
KASTE: This campaign is well-funded. The money comes from local millionaires as well as from Everytown for Gun Safety, the gun control organization started by Michael Bloomberg.
DAVE WORKMAN: I think the gun control people have suddenly discovered that they've got a weapon, and that weapon is money.
KASTE: Dave Workman is an activist-journalist with a group called the Second Amendment Foundation. He admits it's been a one-sided fight in Washington state. There's practically no organized opposition to the ballot initiative, no big ad buys by deep pocket groups like the NRA. They're sitting this one out, he says. But if it passes, expect lawsuits.
WORKMAN: That may be the strategy to beat this thing in court rather than try to fight what seems like a, quote, unquote, "common sense measure" at the ballot box.
KASTE: Pro-gun groups are fighting ballot initiatives in three other states this year. In Nevada and Maine, it's background checks for private gun sales. And in California, it's background checks on ammunition. But their spending is just not keeping up with the gun control side. J T Stepleton is a researcher with the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
J T STEPLETON: Historically, gun rights groups have always outspent their opponents, but of course now it's suddenly - the initiatives have sprung up.
KASTE: The NRA still spends millions, but he says it's putting that money into lobbying and independent expenditures for specific candidates. That leaves an opening for the gun control groups with their focus on ballot initiatives.
STEPLETON: Clearly, like, the advocates see this as a good change of venue for them.
KASTE: In a church in Seattle, volunteers are calling people who are likely to vote for the initiative on this year's Washington state ballot.
COURTNEY: My name's Courtney, and I'm a survivor with Moms Demand Action, and we're calling to...
KASTE: Moms Demand Action is one of the national groups supported by Everytown for Gun Safety. The founder of Moms, Shannon Watts, is here tonight. She says these ballot initiatives aren't the only strategy nationally. They're still pressuring legislatures, too. But there is no doubt that the plan here is to work state by state.
SHANNON WATTS: You know, this is really taking a page out of the marriage equality playbook.
KASTE: Here, she's drawing a parallel with the two-decades-long campaign that legalized same sex marriage.
WATTS: So if you remember, marriage equality activists went to Congress and said, we want marriage equality, and the gift they got in return was DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. And they said, wait a minute. That's not what we wanted. We're going to pivot and go to the states and companies, and we're going to get them to put laws and policies in place that point Congress in the Supreme Court in the direction this nation is headed in, and that is exactly what we have done.
KASTE: Another organizer at the phone bank puts it more simply. She says gun control advocates have failed in the past by trying to do too much too quickly. Now they're looking for fights they can win to create momentum. Martin Kaste, NPR News.