Editor's Note: This article discusses contributions to a 501(c)4 organization, which are considered political donations rather than philanthropy, and thus outside the scope of what we would normally cover. We've chosen to cover this because it provides insight into the causes top tech philanthropists are drawn to.
Gun control has long been considered a hot-button issue, which is why a lot of big-time philanthropists tend to shy away from it. Why involve yourself in something that could put you in the center of a media firestorm and possibly even hurt the bottom line in your business ventures when you can stick to non-controversial causes like early childhood education, and curing cancer?
Whatever the potential drawbacks of getting involved in the gun control debate are, however, they haven't stopped a number of well-known techies in Washington State from quietly pouring money into an organization that is behind a state ballot initiative to expand background checks to include gun shows and most private sales.
Without diving too much into the particulars of the gun control debate, ballot initiatives have become an increasingly common way in recent years to advance restrictions on guns, particularly for measures like expanded background checks, which generally have a high degree of popular support, but have been stalled in state and federal legislatures due to the power of the gun lobby.
This is exactly what happened in Washington, and when the legislature decided not to act, private individuals took up the cause and formed political action groups. Now, with the help of a few tech philanthropists, Washington may soon join the list of states that have taken steps to keep guns away from those who are already not legally allowed to have them.
So who are these benefactors? Well, there's one name that's synonymous with technology in Washington state, and that's Microsoft, so it shouldn't be all that surprising that some of the biggest donors to the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility (the organization behind the initiative), are none other than Microsoft cofounders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, and former CEO Steve Ballmer.
It may have actually been Ballmer's wife Connie who got these techies to support the cause, making a donation of $25,000 in May of 2013, just five months after the group was formed. Later that year, Bill and his wife Melinda each personally donated $25,000.
The money has really begun to flow in the past couple months, however, as the organization gears up for the vote in November. Connie and Steve kicked in an additional $550,000 in June and July, and Paul Allen contributed $500,000 just last week. Not to be outdone, Bill and Melinda just put in another $1 million.
There's also one more philanthropist with connections to the tech industry worth mentioning, though most people probably haven't heard of him, and that's Nick Hanauer. Hanauer is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist, and got his start in the family's feather bed company, but he was also one of the first investors in Amazon, and founded Gear.com, which earned him a pretty big payday when it merged with Overstock.com. His most recent contribution of $1 million for the gun fight brings Hanauer's total to $1,385,000. His mother has donated $100,000 as well.
In total, the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility has raised almost $6 million, with the bulk of that coming from this handful of tech philanthropists. And though the ballot initiative currently enjoys 70 percent support according to an Elway poll, the organization still has a fight on its hands in the form of a competing initiative backed by an organization called Protect Our Gun Rights, which wants to prevent the state from enacting background check laws that go beyond the federal standards.
That competing initiative, which has raised $1 million in funding, was supported by 46 percent of respondents in the same poll, and opposed by 42 percent, meaning at least 16 percent of respondents support both measures, even though they are in direct opposition to one another. Which just goes to show how confusing the rhetoric around this issue is, and how hard it can be to accomplish anything when it involves gun control policy. Who knows what will happen if both initiatives end up passing?
What might these donations mean for groups that advocate stronger gun control policies on a larger scale? If the initiative proves successful, though, we might see them start to quietly funnel money to ballot initiatives in other states where they think they can achieve similar results, or even national organizations dedicated to the issue.