Citizen groups petition to put gun initiatives on ballots

Support for efforts seen as attitude change in West


DENVER -- Frustrated by their legislatures' unwillingness to pass gun-control measures, citizen groups in three Western states are collecting signatures to put the issues before voters this fall as ballot initiatives.

Leaders of the groups -- in Colorado, Utah and Oregon -- say popular support for their efforts is growing, a trend that reflects a significant change in attitudes about gun rights in areas of the country where guns are part of the culture.

In Colorado and Oregon, the ballot initiatives would close the so-called gun-show loophole by requiring criminal background checks for people who buy guns from private dealers at gun shows. A quarter of vendors at such shows are unlicensed, according to a 1999 report by the Treasury and Justice Departments and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

The Utah effort is aimed at barring people who have permits to carry concealed weapons from taking them into churches or public schools.

All three states have Republican-led legislatures that have acted with apparent disregard to the shift in public sentiment. Each has a governor who backs the ballot measures, including two who are Republican, Bill Owens of Colorado and Michael O. Leavitt of Utah. Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon is a Democrat.

"To some degree, the Columbine tragedy has impacted people's views," said Arnold Grossman, a Denver political media consultant and founder of the Colorado group collecting signatures, explaining why polls in all three states have shown strong popular support for the measures. "As the population shifts in the West, with more people coming in from California and the East, attitudes shift. We're moving away from the frontier mentality."

The fatal shootings of 12 students and a teacher last year at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., were carried out with guns bought through nonlicensed sales at the Tanner Gun Show in Denver. The shootings prompted lawmakers in several states and in Congress to introduce measures that would require private gun dealers to conduct background checks as licensed dealers are required to do.

None of the bills have passed, leaving Florida the only state where private dealers are required to conduct background checks, the result of a 1998 measure that gave counties discretion to enforce the law.

After similar bills failed this year in Colorado and Oregon, citizen groups emerged to press ahead with ballot initiatives, and organizers in both states say groups in other states are watching their efforts closely to plan their own strategies.

The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups are fighting each of the ballot initiatives.

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