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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Gun Questionnaires Aim To Pin Candidates Down

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Range Master Richard Flynn fires his .40 caliber handgun at the Evergreen Sportsmen's Club in Thurston County. Flynn believes candidate questionnaires from gun rights and gun control groups are contributing to the standoff over gun safety in America.

“Do you believe guns in the home make you less safe?”

“Who do you believe should legally be allowed to carry a concealed pistol on college campuses?”

Those are the kinds of questions political candidates are getting this year from gun control and gun rights groups.

This year’s NRA questionnaire to Washington candidates includes questions about a ban on so-called assault weapons, limiting magazine capacity, holding parents criminally liable in accidental shootings and guns on college campuses.

‘They don’t have any right to mess with it’

At the Evergreen Sportsmen’s Club in rural Thurston County, skeet shooters line up and blast clay pigeons out of the sky with shotguns. Inside four retired guys sit at a table drinking coffee. It’s not hard to get them talking politics.

“If the candidate is against guns, I’m not going to vote for him,” Doug Simpson said.

Simpson and his shooting buddies sitting at this table are all National Rifle Association members. That means they get the NRA’s Political Victory Fund candidate scorecard. It grades candidates A through F based at least in part on their responses to the questionnaire.

For Simpson, those grades mean a lot. And if a candidate fails that litmus test, “They’re out the door as far as I’m concerned,” he said with a laugh.

“No matter where he stands on anything else,” agreed Jack Rieger. “The Second Amendment was put in the Constitution for a reason and they don’t have any right to mess with it as far as I’m concerned.”

‘One of the biggest issues of our time’

But it’s not just the NRA sending out questionnaires about gun policy. So is the Alliance for Gun Responsibility in Seattle. Executive Director Renee Hopkins said her group also produces a legislative scorecard based on votes in the statehouse.

“The questionnaire is a tool for voters, along with the scorecard to know exactly where their legislators stand on the important gun violence prevention issue,” Hopkins said.

The Alliance is the group that sponsored Washington’s voter-approved background check law in 2014. This year it’s pushing a ballot measure to allow a judge to take away someone’s guns if they’re deemed a risk to themselves or others. The Alliance’s questionnaire asks candidates if they will support that ballot measure, how they will push for “gun responsibility” legislation if elected and whether a gun in the home makes the home less safe.

Hopkins said responses to the questionnaire guide the Alliance’s decision on whom to endorse and give money to.

“It’s absolutely our goal to elect a gun violence prevention majority in the legislature,” Hopkins said. “We think that this is one of the biggest issues of our time.”

‘The world isn’t black and white’

One candidate who got both of these questionnaires is Democratic state Sen. Reuven Carlyle of Seattle. In general, he and the Alliance are on the same page and he and the NRA are not. He filled out the Alliance’s questionnaire and not the NRA’s. He said he won’t unless the NRA addresses comments one of its local lobbyists is said to have made in 2014 about Jewish-Americans who support gun control.

But he’s uneasy about these kind of questionnaires. Even from groups he agrees with.

“I think committing to a specific policy initiative or proposal from a special interest -- even something you may connect to -- hurts our system,” Carlyle said. “I don’t think it’s constructive for democracy.”

And Carlyle is not alone in that belief.

Richard Flynn is the rifle Range Master at the Evergreen Sportsmen’s Club. His job is to keep everyone safe. It’s a point of pride for him. He said gun safety shouldn’t be a partisan issue and it bothers him that it is.

“We need to come together because it isn’t an NRA issue and it isn’t an anti-gun issue,” Flynn said. “It’s everybody’s issue.”

He thinks candidate questionnaires contribute to the political standoff over guns in America.

“You’re just asking people to be pushed into a corner, you really are. It’s black or white,” Flynn said. “Well the world isn’t black and white.”

And as long as that’s the case, Flynn said, no progress will be made on the issue of gun safety.

The NRA declined to comment for this story.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."