We've all heard the saw about California being hostile to industry. Here's an industry that indisputably has grounds for complaint: the gun industry.
Finally, the Legislature is getting something right.
According to many experts, California's firearms regulations are the toughest in the nation. (New York's recently enacted rules may be tougher, but they're still being rolled out.) California may soon get even tougher: a slate of proposals outlined this month by legislative leaders in Sacramento would add new regulations and close a few loopholes in the old.
"There's a lot for folks here to be proud of," Ben Van Houten, managing attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told me. "But there's still a lot of work to do. Federal law is astonishingly weak, so it's incumbent on the states to do as much as they can."
Taken together, the state's firearms laws are a model for regulating sales and possession of a dangerous product without banning it entirely — or even necessarily cutting much into the commercial market. More than 600,000 handguns, rifles and shotguns were sold in California in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available from the attorney general's office. All required background checks, which resulted in denials of fewer than 1% of applications. California remains one of the nation's major gun markets — only Texas and Kentucky (go figure) generated more background checks last year, according to FBI figures.
This dynamic places California in a familiar position, as a bellwether on social and economic change. On issues such as auto emissions, greenhouse gases and tax policy, California has led the country across a Rubicon. Will gun safety be the next frontier?
Consider the most important statistic related to California's gun laws. In 1981, before the most stringent rules were adopted, California's rate of 16.5 firearms-related deaths per 100,000 population was 31st worst in the nation and higher than the national average; by 2000, a decade after the laws started getting tightened, the state ranked 20th, with a rate of 9.18, below the national average. In 2010, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers figures, the state ranked ninth, with a rate of only 7.9.
And this is a big, diverse state with not inconsiderable pockets of gang lawlessness and drug abuse, and sizable populations of hunters, target shooters and other gun fanciers. Many factors may have contributed to the downward trend in firearm deaths since 1990, but the numbers strongly indicate that regulation works.
California's hostility to guns is focused mainly on assault weapons, which are outlawed — all others are legal, but regulated. The assault weapons ban is being extended to the makers of these dangerous products. The state's two largest public pension funds have reviewed their holdings of those manufacturers at the urging of state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who argues that the funds shouldn't be investing in companies that make guns that can't be legally sold in the state.
The California State Teachers' Retirement System, or CalSTRS, voted in January to sell its holdings in three gun makers — Smith & Wesson and Sturm-Ruger, which are publicly traded companies, and Freedom Group. The latter landed in the CalSTRS portfolio through its investment in Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that owns the gun maker, which made the assault rifle used in the Newtown school massacre in December. Soon after the massacre, Cerberus said it would put Freedom up for sale.
The board of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS, may vote on divestment of its holdings in Smith & Wesson and Sturm-Ruger as early as this week. (CalPERS doesn't own an interest in Freedom.) Lockyer, who sits on the boards of both pension funds, acknowledged that the divestment would be "largely symbolic" — the gun investments are negligible portions of both portfolios. But he's correct that it's important to make a statement that there are investments public agencies devoted to the health and welfare of their beneficiaries shouldn't be making.
It's even more important in this case, since CalPERS and CalSTRS are the two largest state pension funds in the country.
California's history with gun regulation is instructive for the nation. This is the state where the National Rifle Assn. tested its anti-regulation tactics before taking them on the road.
That happened in 1982, when a freeze on handgun sales appeared on the November ballot as Proposition 15. Aware that passage might spread the idea of a freeze on handguns nationwide, the NRA loaded up.
The organization provided roughly half of the $5.8 million spent to defeat the measure (a near record for an initiative campaign at the time), with gun manufacturers accounting for the rest. A key television ad depicted an elderly woman cowering in bed as a faceless interloper turns her doorknob and her 911 call returns a busy signal.
This was a mild foretaste of the organization's modern paranoid approach, which involves portraying daily life as a gantlet to be run dodging bloodthirsty Latin American drug gangs, looters, kidnappers, rioters and terrorists, as paranoia poster child Wayne LaPierre of the NRA wrote in an essay last week.
"When people realized Proposition 15 would affect their capacity to protect themselves," relates Rick Manning, who helped manage the campaign as an NRA consultant, "it was overwhelmingly rejected."
It didn't hurt that the NRA staged an aggressive voter registration drive among gun owners and supporters. The measure lost by a 2-1 margin, an outcome that is widely thought to have helped bring about Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley's narrow loss in his race for governor against George Deukmejian.
That was the low-water mark for gun regulation in the state. In 1989 and 1990, however, state regulations got much tighter. The inspiration was a precursor to the Newtown massacre — the murder of five children and wounding of 29 others in a Stockton schoolyard by a deranged gunman who reloaded his assault rifle twice in the course of firing 105 rounds.
The post-Stockton era yielded an assault weapons ban. The state also extended to hunting rifles and shotguns its waiting period in effect for handguns; the wait is currently 10 days. At the time, an NRA lobbyist scoffed that "people don't follow California in any knee-jerk reaction." But the state's assault weapon ban became the model for the federal ban sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 1994. The federal measure expired in 2004, and a renewal may be on the table as Congress ponders new regulations in the wake of Newtown.
Today, California law requires that almost all transfers of firearms, including private deals and gun show sales, be made through a licensed dealer and completed after a waiting period. High-capacity magazines are illegal except for those owned before 2000. There's a long list of people prohibited to possess firearms, including felons and people judged to be a danger to themselves or others.
The new proposals include measures to close a loophole in the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and to require a background check and a permit to buy ammunition. The package reflects the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds any time an entrenched industry confronts a new regulatory paradigm.
"The gun industry has been very adept at finding loopholes to our existing laws," says Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate president pro tem, who will be spearheading the legislative effort in his chamber. He says the assumption that the bills will pass easily is misplaced: "It's not going to be easy or simple. There's going to be huge pushback certainly from the industry and a very vocal minority that doesn't believe in any law to reduce gun violence."
Indeed, gun-rights advocates sound as if they're already girding for a court fight. "It's just a matter of time before a California case gets out of the 9th Circuit," says Manning, referring to the liberal-leaning federal appellate court with jurisdiction over California. In the Supreme Court, which appeared to strengthen individual gun-possession rights with decisions in 2008 and 2010, "these laws will have some real problems."
It's true that the new proposals won't eradicate gun violence in California, any more than the post-1989 reforms eradicated school shootings in the state. The biggest loophole in California regulations can't be closed by the state — it's the porous regulations in nearby states such as Arizona that leach across the border.
But until and unless federal reforms close that gap, we're on our own.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.