California could be a model for restricting gun ownership nationwide
When California Gov. Jerry Brown enacted a sweeping package of gun ownership restrictions this month, including an assault-weapons ban and background checks for bullets, gun-control advocates hailed a legislative victory that's been impossible at the national level – despite seemingly routine mass shootings, and the outrage that usually follows.
"My goal in signing these bills is to enhance public safety by tightening our existing laws in a responsible and focused manner, while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners," Brown, a Democrat and gun owner, said in a statement.
Yet Brown, who signed laws drafted after massacres in Orlando, Florida, last month and San Bernardino, California, in December, may have accomplished far more than that. He and other Golden State Democrats stiff-armed the powerful National Rifle Association, ran roughshod over Republican opposition and passed tough new gun laws, creating a national template and succeeding where Washington has failed.
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Whether or not the California laws survive an all-but-certain court challenge by gun-rights groups – gun-control advocates say the odds are better-than-even that the courts will side with them – California's template is now in progressives' playbook, and new laws could be coming soon to a blue (or purple) state near you.
"Absolutely yes," says Roy Griffith, the legislative liaison for the California Rifle and Pistol Association, which fought the bill for months. "California's always a testing ground," noting that restrictive, gun-related hunting laws have migrated to Maine and elsewhere.
"They do test things out here first," says Griffith, a former veteran police officer. "There's already talk that if it sticks in California, they're going to take it nationwide."
Griffith, though, says Democrats in Sacramento, the state capitol, played fast and loose with legislative rules, cut gun owners out of the conversation and crammed the measures down the throats of minority Republicans.
"These bills, many of them – the ammunition bill, for instance – started life as clean-energy bills" before Democratically-controlled committees shut out the GOP and rewrote them as gun-control measures, he says. They then scheduled short-notice public hearings and passed them without gun owners' input.
Not so, says Josh Horwitz, executive director of Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which supports the new regulations. California he says, is on the side of the people, and simply has a progressive political and policy "infrastructure" that many states lack. The Golden State, he says, has been at the vanguard of the gun-control issue for awhile, and "in many ways we look at what they've done as a menu of options" for the nationwide movement.
"California has done a number of things to make it very hard for the gun lobby to muck up the system," Horwitz says. As far as a legal challenge by pro-gun groups is concerned, he adds, "I'm very optimistic" the laws will ultimately stand.
Spurred by the Orlando and San Bernardino mass shootings, Democratic lawmakers boldly went where their counterparts in Washington are unable to tread. As Sen. Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, launched a filibuster on the Senate floor and House Democrats staged a sit-in in June, legislators in Sacramento hammered out 11 bills making it tougher to get and use firearms in their state.
The legislative package reached Brown's desk July 1; though he signed six bills, he also vetoed five, including ones that would have expanded the definition of a gun, restricted gun purchases to one per person over a 30-day period and allowed police or social workers to petition a court to take firearms from the mentally ill.
Declaring the new laws "draconian," the NRA slammed Brown for creating "the most anti-gun state in America" and criticized him and Democrats for exploiting the massacres of innocents for political gain. Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman, says the gun control package turns "California's law-abiding gun owners into second-class citizens."
Griffith agrees, accusing lawmakers of cutting corners, hijacking the legislative process and sending ineffective bills that punish lawful gun owners to Brown in the dead of night.
"The thing we testified to, over and over, is not one of these bills will affect criminals," he says. "A criminal will not go, 'Oh, now I have to do a background check' [before buying ammunition]. Criminals steal their ammunition. They will continue to do what criminals do and break the law."
The CRPA is "fully, and 100 percent committed" to challenging the new laws, Griffith says, and has "one of the best law firms in our nation" on the case. "They're looking at the fine details now, and looking at what can be challenged. By all means, we're taking it forward."
He acknowledged, however, a few clouds on the horizon.
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, running to succeed the retiring Brown, has gotten an even stricter statewide gun-control proposition on the ballot in November, and if Hillary Clinton, the Democrats' presumptive presidential nominee, wins the White House, Griffith fears she's likely to pick a left-leaning nominee to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and "we'll get [the legal challenge] thrown back in our faces."
"There's all kinds of chips on the table" he says.
Horwitz, however, is wagering heavily on more state-level gun control legislation modeled after California's, particularly in states with governments that lean to the left – though not necessarily exclusively. Though it may not look like it, he says the national mood has shifted against firearms in every household, although turning momentum into legislation could take awhile.
"You have to build a lot of infrastructure for those to work. And California built that infrastructure," including running gun-control candidates and launching informational campaigns framing gun violence as a public health issue, he says. "As much as I'd like to have a 50-state system like in California, in most states we're working on rudiments" like quality background checks for gun buyers and streamlining the exchange of information between law enforcement and gun sellers.
The Golden State has a few other advantages that are harder to replicate in other states, including a more liberal culture and an influx of immigrants who didn't grow up in the U.S.'s gun-loving society, Horwitz says. At the same time, the state's political apparatus is more progressive compared with other states, where Republicans have locked in legislative majorities through gerrymandered districts.
Still, "I think the NRA, really to their detriment, has become a Republican organization," Horwitz says. "When I started 35 years ago, they were a bipartisan organization; now they're an arm of the GOP," a shift that could spell their downfall
By focusing on guns, stridently, as a rights issue at a time the country's demographics are changing – and mass shootings are spurring widespread anger at the organization's universal, no-restrictions, gun ownership platform – the NRA has painted itself into a corner, he says. Their positions, he says "plays really poorly in a Democratic majority state" like California, and goes against a frustrated national electorate.
Meanwhile, Horwitz says, he's noticed his home state of Virginia, once an NRA bastion, is slowly breaking its embrace with what he says is the "false patriotism" it and other gun-rights groups promote. That's been particularly true nationally, he says, since the horrific slaughter of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012 and the Senate's failure to pass a proposed gun-safety bill in the Senate in response.
When a mass shooting happened, "there used to be a big national outcry, then it's forgotten about," Horwitz says, noting that athletes and celebrities are joining the cause and speaking out. "After Newtown," he says, "people did not go home. They created an incredibly powerful movement" that can go toe-to-toe with the NRA, financially as well as in grassroots organizing.
"This is a tipping point," he says. "There's a ton of hard work to do, but we're finally moving in the right direction."