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Bill and Melinda Gates take a $1 million stand for gun control

The couple donates $1 million to support a Washington state initiative that would require criminal background checks on firearm sales at gun shows and online.

A balanced approach? The Tonight Show/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is putting his financial heft behind his belief that guns shouldn't be sold to just anyone.

He and his wife Melinda Gates donated $1 million last week to The Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility. The group stands behind ballot initiative 594, which would require criminal background checks on gun sales online and at gun shows. (There are exceptions for antiques and sales to family members.)

As SeattlePI reports, Bill and Melinda Gates had previously donated $25,000 each to the group. However, $1 million seems to say that they now consider it a serious issue.

Gates isn't the only techie pulling out his wallet for the initiative in recent months. Fellow co-founder Paul Allen has donated $500,000. Steve Ballmer and his wife Connie Ballmer have given a combined $580,000, and early Amazon investor Nick Hanhauer has contributed nearly $1.5 million.

Of the $6 million raised so far by the initiative's backers, about $3.5 million comes from this small group of tech wunderkinds.

Gates has not been an overtly political figure. Since casting aside many of his Microsoft responsibilities, he has dedicated himself, with considerable success, to the eradication of malaria.

Gun ownership is a deeply emotive issue in America, something that many overseas find difficult to grasp. Statistics concerning gun deaths stun those abroad, but seem to have less impact here. The Children's Defense Fund, for example, says that 93 percent of youths killed by guns in 26 high-income countries are in the US. (US youths represent 43 percent of that universe.) Some estimates suggest America has more guns than cars.

However, many Americans believe that guns are a great symbol of personal defense and freedom. One mantra, offered by the National Rifle Association's Wayne LaPierre, is: "The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun."

Clearly, Gates worries that there are too many bad guys who can get hold of guns too easily. The question now is whether his and his wife's overt support for this initiative will reap personal invective.

One of the most vocal and wealthy supporters of gun control is former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. To discredit his involvement, the NRA last week released a campaign suggesting: "Hey Bloomberg, keep your politics in New York and keep your hands off our guns." Perhaps it's easy to suggest that Bloomberg has no understanding of middle and south America. How, though, could the NRA criticize Gates?

Gates and his wife issued this statement to describe their support for I-594: "We are pleased to join many others making a donation to the Washington Alliance for Gun Responsibility to support Initiative 594 on the November ballot. We believe it will be an effective and balanced approach to improving gun safety in our state by closing existing loopholes for background checks."

The Gates Foundation works hard in such areas as health, agricultural reform, and education. If Bill Gates himself begins to make more public pronouncements about the need to have, at the very least, a slightly more "balanced" approach to gun control, his voice could be powerful and one not easily criticized.

Some, though, have already tried, suggesting that he and his fellow donors are mere "one-percenters."