Dull room at the Democratic county headquarters, fluoros and fake wood panelling and a plastic coffee urn in the corner. Four large tables, about eight people scattered along , middle-aged mostly, one kid, schlubby chain store clothes, no suits, no polka-dot retro dresses, no hipsters here. The buzz of phone calling: “I’m calling about I-594, have you heard about it, can I give you some information?” “Do you know in states with background checks there’s a 38% reductions in spouse killings …” “Do you know the police association supports …”
Outside, it’s cold, no mist, but a grey day after the last burst of summer. North of Seattle, in the second district, as safe as they get, and no Washington state Senate election this year, so the campaign is mainly switched to the ballot measure. The passage of I-594 will enforce background checks for gun purchases and close a loophole whereby private sales are exempt from that measure. A background check finds past felonies, history of mental health issues, restraining orders, etc. Currently they’re enforced whenever you buy from a gun shop, but if you just buy your cousin’s .22 Saturday night special, there’s no paperwork, and anything goes. Should I-594 pass, it still will in that case, most likely, but not at gun fairs and gun shows, which are deemed to be a collection of private sellers. You can get whatever you like, and that’s where a lot of those hoarding arsenals do all their impulse buying. Not hard to find, either; a quick online search shows there are eight of them within a hundred miles of Seattle in the next two weeks.
This is an example of the new strategy by the gun-control movement: state-by-state close these loopholes, tighten the regulations in ways that don’t give the National Rifle Association a big target to go up against, and no scope for a challenge in the courts. Blanket gun control moves fail not simply because of NRA money but because they stir up ideas about “freedom”, including, on the west coast, many leftists with a libertarian bent. So the campaign itself is as low-profile as possible. No rallies, no marches; instead, ads and email lists and Facebook and phone banking, to come in under the NRA radar. The NRA know what they’re doing, but can’t do much about it.
The campaign is so low-key, in fact, that when I called up to see if I could pop along and have a look, they wouldn’t let me. I came anyway, pretending to be an interested resident and hoped I wouldn’t run into the bossy woman I’d spoken to on the phone. I didn’t, but they still wouldn’t let me phone bank anyway:
“Where’s that accent from?” said a woman with a clipboard.
“We can’t have you call people. They won’t know what’s going on. Say, would you like to collate?”
Collate? Boy, would I ever! They gave me sheets of names printed on single-line sticker paper, sorted by gender and age (young and old), four sets of sheets in all. So I was to go through these and organise them by address — take any one of 10 zip codes, unpeel and stick it to another sheet. The zip codes distinguished between suburban and semi-rural names, so at the end there would be eight categories in all, young-old x male-female x suburban-rural, with a different set of talking points for all of them. The object? To maximise the chance of moving someone from “maybe” to “yes”, or from “not voting” to “voting”, while minimising the possibility of alerting a non-voting, likely “no” voter to the ballot measure, or antagonising a non-committed one to vote no.
“How come these aren’t auto-sorted by zip?”
“Hell, I just hacked these up at school,” said Jean, the organiser. “The database can’t sort zip codes.”
I begin going down the lists, unpeeling, sticking down, sometimes scraping back off when I’ve put a young woman on an old codgers. When there are 10 names on a sheet, I put it in a wire basket, which already has about a dozen or so in there. Every so often someone comes up, riffles through and takes one. They’re friendly — “hey, how ya doin’?” “slow work” — but not gushy or chatty like most Americans in, well, everywhere. It’s a grind, and purposeful. Get down the list, go home, but get it done. All very enlightened, but the list-taking reveals something a little more murky. Women only call women, men only call men. Ideally, you take a lot of your exact cohort. Far as I can tell, men lead with police support for the measure, reduction in police shootings elsewhere the law is in place (about a dozen states), women lead with domestic violence, segue on to police killings. I suspect domestic violence doesn’t get a big hearing when calling rural areas, but that might be a little harsh. But this is how a lot of liberal politics is done in America now, from ballot measures to dogcatcher to President. Targeted, scientific, smart, but also silent, orderly, siloed.
If the measure gets through, it will be another quiet liberal victory, the first such ban achieved by ballot measure, rather than law, a spark to start a rolling fire. But it is also post-public politics, stealth info bombing, oriented to the post-social character of much American life. After an hour or so of this, I have no stickers left and make my excuses — “I have to get to get the ferry”. “Well, thank you for your help.” As I leave she calls me back (“we’re all drinking at, will you come again, will you join…?”) — “you’re on our mailing list, right?”.
Outside, the fog has rolled in.