Gun Control Divides Democrats In California Legislature

December 9, 2015

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, authored a bill to ban possession of large-capacity gun magazines. Some Assembly Democrats joined Republicans in defeating the bill. “Democrats are not all on the same page about anything,” Hancock said.

A debate over gun control that has divided Democrats in the state Capitol could head to the California ballot next year, with the San Bernardino massacre likely to be on voters’ minds.

Nearly three years ago, after a man killed 26 women and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, Democrats in the Legislature announced a sweeping plan to regulate firearms. It seemed likely to pass in a state that already had some of the nation’s toughest gun restrictions and a strong Democratic majority in the statehouse.

In the end, however, just two of the eight proposals were signed into law. Thirteen Assembly Democrats helped Republicans defeat some of the measures.

“Democrats are not all on the same page about anything,” said state Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, whose bill to ban possession of large-capacity magazines failed.

Now, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is working to qualify an initiative on next year’s ballot that includes some of the provisions rejected in Sacramento, including background checks for ammunition purchases and a ban on possessing gun magazines that hold more than 10 rounds — both of which lost in the Assembly.

“We’re not doing this in response to San Bernardino,” Newsom said. “It was the right thing to do before then, it is certainly is the right thing to do today.”

California already has gun-control laws stronger than many other states, including universal background checks and a ban on many assault weapons. The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports gun restrictions, gave California an A-minus last year for the strength of its gun laws.

Yet even in a state as blue as California, Democrats can defy expectations when it comes to guns. Gov. Jerry Brown has vetoed some gun-control bills. Others have fallen flat in a Legislature where some Democrats — particularly those from inland districts — are sensitive to gun owners and their grassroots lobbying.

‘Cultural fabric’

Gun ownership “is part of the cultural fabric of rural California and a practical matter when you live in parts of the state where the nearest police officer on a Friday night is 38 miles away,” said Richie Ross, a political consultant who has run Democratic campaigns in the Central Valley for decades.

His clients include Democratic Assemblymen Adam Gray of Merced, Henry Perea of Fresno and Rudy Salas of Bakersfield — all of whom voted against the ammunition and magazine bills.

Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, did not support those bills because they would have “burdened law-abiding gun owners without improving public safety or preventing criminals from getting guns,” said her spokesman Christian Burkin. He added that she has voted in favor of other gun-control bills, including one prohibiting the sale of large-capacity magazines.

Some of the Democrats who rejected the ammunition and magazine bills faced difficult re-election challenges. Two — Assembly members Steve Fox of Palmdale (Los Angeles County) and Sharon Quirk-Silva of Fullerton (Orange County) — voted against the bills and still lost to Republicans last year.

Bypassing Sacramento

Brown has twice vetoed another provision included in Newsom’s measure: a requirement that gun owners report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement. “I continue to believe that responsible people report the loss or theft of a firearm and irresponsible people do not,” Brown wrote in a 2013 veto message.

Newsom has framed his ballot measure as an opportunity for voters to get around the gun lobby’s influence in Sacramento. Backers are expected to begin collecting signatures early next year to qualify for the November ballot.

Compared with most of the powerful interests working to sway policy in Sacramento, gun-rights groups spend relatively little on lobbying and campaign donations, with most of their money going to Republicans.

Over the last 15 years, major pro-gun groups have given at least $440,000 to state-level campaigns in California, according to a search of the secretary of state’s campaign finance database. The Altria tobacco company spent about 100 times as much during the same period.

Among the 13 Democrats who helped defeat the bills now incorporated in Newsom’s measure, Assemblyman Jim Frazier, D-Oakley, is the only one who reported contributions from pro-gun groups.

Small Donors

“The gun community in California is a universe of $25 to $35 donors,” said Sam Paredes, lobbyist for the Gun Owners of California. “We’re talking dozens and dozens of small contributions.”

Instead of large contributions, gun groups rely on grassroots lobbying to win battles in the Legislature.

In the debate over the ammunition-regulation bill, one Assembly member held up a poster-size photograph of 33,000 e-mails he said he had received against the bill. Fox said he had received nine e-mails in support and 670 e-mails “specifically from my district, against this.”

That kind of lobbying presents a challenge for gun-control advocates, said Amanda Wilcox of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

“I’m sure these moderate Democrats get a lot of phone calls,” she said, “and that is probably a big reason why it’s difficult to get their votes sometimes.”

CALmatters is a nonprofit journalism venture dedicated to explaining state policies and politics. For more stories by Laurel Rosenhall, go to http://calmatters.org/newsanalysis.

Click here for the original article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

State Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, authored a bill to ban possession of large-capacity gun magazines. Some Assembly Democrats joined Republicans in defeating the bill. “Democrats are not all on the same page about anything,” Hancock said.

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