What a confusing mess Washington’s gun-safety initiative has turned into

Voters waiting for sensible limits on gun purchases received some good news Friday in a ruling by the state Supreme Court: They’ll get a chance to vote this fall on a ballot initiative that seeks to make Washington a safer place to live, work and go to school.

But potential bad news lurks in the background: Technical flaws might yet be Initiative 1639’s undoing. And the support of 378,000 people who signed petitions – plus hundreds of thousands more who will vote “yes” on the Nov. 6 ballot – might amount to nothing.

Thurston County Superior Court Judge James Dixon temporarily blocked I-1639 from the ballot earlier this month, saying the small print on the back of petitions, plus the lack of customary underlines and strike-throughs, made it too hard for signers to see how gun laws would be changed.

Firearm-safety advocates appealed Dixon’s ruling and won Friday, prompting Secretary of State Kim Wyman to thank the high court for acting quickly. “This clears the way for our preparations to put I-1639 before voters in time for ballots to be printed,” she said.

It does not, however, clear up a mess that ought to frustrate voters, no matter which side of the Second Amendment debate they line up on.

Small font sizes and missing underline marks might seem like no big deal. But under a worst-case scenario, some future initiative could go forward even if petition sheets are riddled with errors or outright lies.

Washington’s pre-election initiative review process is inadequate, and legislators should address it when they return to Olympia in January.

Under current law, signature gatherers must present “a readable, full, true, and correct copy” of the initiative on the reverse side of all petitions. But the law doesn’t spell out who should enforce it, and the Supreme Court ruled last week that its hands are tied.

It also said the secretary of state has no duty or authority to certify an initiative “based on the readability, correctness, or formatting of the proposed measure printed on the back of the petitions.”

We read that to mean there’s no line of defense to keep an initiative off the ballot, even if petition signers were deceived by incorrect wording.

Basically, the law reduces Wyman to a signature counter and calendar checker. She can refuse to accept a measure only if it doesn’t have enough valid signatures, or if the petitions aren’t turned in on time.

This wouldn’t be so bad if the Supreme Court would conduct its own review before a challenged initiative goes to the ballot. But as Friday’s unanimous ruling shows, the justices don’t believe they’re empowered by law to do that; instead they typically wait until after Election Day to rule on constitutional questions.

Voters and taxpayers deserve more up-front protection than that.

It’s unfortunate that I-1639 backers weren’t more careful printing up petitions, because the measure’s public safety provisions are much needed. It would increase the minimum legal age to purchase assault-style weapons from 18 to 21, require more extensive background checks and gun education, and mandate safe storage of firearms.

This Editorial Board started exhorting citizens to file a gun-safety initiative back in February, when it was clear legislators couldn’t muster the political will to make the changes themselves.

Recent election history of progressive firearm measures in Washington suggests I-1639 will win a solid majority. But that won’t stop opponents from challenging it on procedural grounds after Nov. 6 – and they might very well succeed. Judge Dixon, for one, said in no uncertain terms he believes the initiative’s formatting violates state law. “Frankly, this court does not struggle with this issue,” he said when he delivered his Aug. 17 decision.

If so, it not only will deprive the public of responsible gun reforms, it will weaken their faith in our state’s democratic institutions.

We see no good news in that outcome.