The Golden State is known for having the strongest gun restrictions in the nation — but efforts in the state Capitol to push those laws even further in recent years have ended with mixed results.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Democratic-controlled state Legislature have created 28 new laws that strengthened gun control in California since 2011, when Brown took office. But a KQED News analysis of five years of legislative records shows the governor has vetoed some of the strongest measures passed by lawmakers over the past five years. Meanwhile, the Legislature itself has killed another 28 proposed laws aimed at further restricting guns and ammunition in California.
Overall, the analysis paints a more nuanced picture of state leaders’ positions on gun control than national headlines might suggest.
A total of 97 gun bills have been introduced since 2011, the majority to expand gun controls. But in addition to killing dozens of those measures, the governor or Legislature has also supported a handful that expanded gun rights, mostly for retired law enforcement officers.
Gun control advocates recently won a big victory, successfully pushing a law taking effect Jan. 1 creating a way to obtain a court order to take guns away from unstable and potentially dangerous people.
But they’ve also seen measures die that would have regulated ammunition sales, expanded the list of banned firearms and limited the ability of the mentally ill to get weapons. Most notably, in 2013 Brown vetoed SB347, which would have expanded the definition of assault weapons and banned the sale of semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines. The suspects in last week’s massacre in San Bernardino used just such weapons.
Amanda Wilcox has been lobbying for tougher gun controls for a decade in Sacramento for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. She says gun control advocates have a strong winning record in California — in over 10 years, she said, they have helped shepherd 45 bills into law while successfully killing any legislative proposals that they opposed.
But, she said, “The governor is a challenge for us.”
“He is a wild card on this issue,” Wilcox said. “He has signed very innovative strong, controversial, good — from my perspective — gun bills, and he has vetoed some very good strong gun bills.”
Clint Monfort, an attorney who represents gun rights groups with the Long Beach firm Michel and Associates, agrees that the governor has a mixed record when it comes to gun control — though he says far more gun control bills have been signed than vetoed, and no major gun control measures have been repealed under Brown.
Monfort said none of the measures that have failed in Sacramento in recent years would have prevented the San Bernardino tragedy — in particular SB347, which some Democratic lawmakers are talking about reviving in 2016.
“At the end of the day, the type of firearm that is being used in these incidences isn’t really making much of a difference when you walk into a room full of, you know, 30, 50, 100 unarmed people or unarmed children,” Monfort said.
Monfort says SB347 would have outlawed “90 percent of all rifles — most of which are used for hunting.” In vetoing the bill, the governor said the legislation was far too broad and would have required hundreds of thousands of owners of legally acquired rifles to register them as assault weapons.
Brown seems unlikely to embrace any sweeping new gun control proposals: On Saturday, he told the Sacramento Bee that California already has some of the nation’s strongest gun laws and pointed to neighboring states such as Nevada and Arizona as a “gigantic back door through which any terrorist can walk.”
But the Legislature isn’t the only place where previously defeated gun control proposals are resurfacing. In October, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a ballot measure that would resurrect a number of restrictions that have failed in Sacramento.
Among them: The regulation and tracking of ammunition sales, including background checks; requiring people to report when a firearm has been lost or stolen; and outlawing the possession of large-capacity magazines that had been grandfathered in when the state banned their sale.
“We should get our arms around the fact that anybody can sell ammunition in California,” Newsom said. “There’s no licensing requirements for anybody to get into the business of the sale of ammunition, and there’s no background checks on the most deadly component of the weapon. It’s not guns that kill people, it’s not people that kill people, it’s the bullets themselves, and it just seems to me that California has a real and immediate opportunity to take leadership in this respect.”
He pointed out that the accused San Bernardino shooters had stockpiled thousands of rounds of ammunition legally and with no one noticing.
Monfort argues that regulating ammunition is ineffective because it’s not unusual for gun enthusiasts to buy 1,000 or 2,000 rounds at a time.
“This was tried and failed at the federal level in 1986 … it was repealed because it was so ineffective,” he said.
Yet voters in California have embraced gun controls before, and Newsom said in general he has more hope for success around gun control at the ballot box than in the Capitol.
“The new strategy for gun safety in this country is now bottom up, not top down,” he said, adding that cities and states need to take action since Congress won’t.
“If not us, then who?” Newsom asked. “If we can assert ourselves, if we can prove a policy, a principle, it will increase the likelihood that others will take a look at it and increase the likelihood that they may adopt similar strategies in other states.”
And while Monfort said policymakers should focus on “problem individuals … instead of just passing another gun law that won’t have any effect,” Wilcox argued gun restrictions absolutely work.
“If someone runs a stop sign and causes a car accident, I never hear, ‘Stop signs don’t work, get rid of the stop signs,’ ” she said. “Why should that be different with gun violence? We will never stop all the shootings but we can bring down the rate by common-sense gun laws.”