By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Two incompatible ballot measures on background checks for gun buyers in Washington state enjoy majority support in a poll released on Tuesday, but the one advancing stricter gun controls is more popular.
The competing measures, both slated to be on the ballot in November in the Pacific Northwest state, are the only firearm background check initiatives up for a vote this year in the United States.
They are the latest touchstones in a longstanding fight over background checks on gun buyers. The debate hinges on whether their expansion constitutes a common-sense approach to keeping guns away from criminals and the mentally unstable or a first step in broader restrictions on gun ownership.
Initiative 594 would require all firearm sales, including those at gun shows and conducted online, to be predicated on a background check of the buyer. Initiative 591, however, would disallow background checks for gun purchases unless explicitly required by the federal government.
Federal law exempts some gun sales from background checks, allowing for what opponents have dubbed the gun-show loophole because some sales in that setting are exempted.
The results on the Washington state gun measures from the Elway Poll, which is independent of the two campaigns, shows Initiative 594 enjoying 72 percent support, while the other measure has 55 percent in favor. The poll's margin of error is 4.5 percentage points, and 504 registered voters participated.
When asked in a follow-up question whether background checks should be expanded or unchanged, 62 percent of respondents said they favored more restrictions.
Stuart Elway, whose firm conducted the poll, said gun-control advocates need to clarify the difference between the measures while their foes would benefit from muddied waters.
"The task for proponents of the status quo is to cultivate the confusion, hope that both measures pass, then get them both overturned in court after the election," Elway said in a statement.
The pro-background checks campaign has raised more than $1.6 million, including $50,000 from Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and his wife, Melinda, according to campaign finance filings. The anti-background check campaign has taken in just under half that amount.
Colorado, which passed universal background checks into law last year, and New York are among a handful of states with such requirements in place.
(This version of the April 15 story corrects the fifth paragraph to show that some, not all, sales at gun shows are not subject to background checks.)
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Mohammad Zargham)