CALIFORNIA POLITICS
Capitol Journal

Mr. President, you failed to stand up for gun control in your State of the Union

Sorry, Mr. President, that won't do. Not a mere passing reference to gun control in an hour-long State of the Union address, your last ever.

Yes, you've talked a lot about firearms violence in recent weeks. And you imposed some mild tightening of gun laws with executive actions.

But Tuesday night was the big stage, the showcase event seen on TV by more than 31 million Americans.

No, the cowardly Congress is not going to cross the gun lobby and require universal background checks for all firearms purchases or ban the sale of military-style assault weapons. No matter what you say.

The speech was mostly on target, especially the slap at climate deniers and the call for reducing the influence of private money in politics — an evil you exacerbated by rejecting public campaign funding in 2008.

But just one complete sentence or two about guns, 10 seconds' worth, could have inspired a few million citizens to press their state legislatures and city councils to get tougher.

Something beyond the throwaway line about continuing to push for progress on immigration, equal pay, paid leave, the minimum wage and "protecting our kids from gun violence."

Perhaps a sentence cobbled from that terrific speech in the White House on Jan. 5 that relatively few saw. Like: Americans "are not inherently more prone to violence" than other humans, "but we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency."

Or my favorite: Voters fed up with members of Congress kneeling to the gun lobby need "to remember come election time…. If you make it hard for them to win an election if they block those laws, they'll change course. I promise."

Mr. President, you also might have pointed to that seat in the balcony that you and First Lady Michelle Obama left vacant as a symbolic tribute to gun victims. But nary a word.

Oh, well. California is moving ahead on guns with a November ballot initiative and legislation in the Capitol.

"California is different," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the nonpartisan Field Poll. "This state always has been more supportive of controlling gun ownership than the rest of the country."

Why? California is dominated by Democrats who mostly favor gun control, he pointed out. Likewise, ethnic voters are leery of firearms, and their numbers have been growing.

A new Field Poll showed that 57% of California voters think it is more important to impose greater restrictions on guns than to protect the right to own them.

The parties are deeply split: 79% of Democrats and 61% of independents favor more controls. But for 76% of Republicans, gun rights are the first priority.

Women are especially pro-control — 63% of them. That could help Hillary Clinton fire up females' enthusiasm for her presidential bid. Only 50% of men, however, support tighter regulations over gun rights.

The Field Poll found that even Republicans support two proposals on the gun control agenda. Requiring background checks for ammunition buyers was backed by 58% of Republicans. And prohibiting people on the "no fly" list from purchasing firearms was supported by 68%.

"That has to do with their concern about terrorism," DiCamillo said. "Republicans have much greater concern and are more pessimistic about terrorism."

Overall, 80% of voters favored background checks for ammo buyers and 75% wanted people on the "no fly" list barred from weapons purchases.

Also, 58% supported banning possession of large-capacity magazines, those that hold more than 10 rounds.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, preparing to run for governor in 2018, is collecting signatures to qualify a gun control initiative for the November ballot.

"It's flying," asserted campaign spokesman Dan Newman. "We're having no problem getting people to sign it. They're waiting in line."

The measure contains two features that voters supported in the Field survey: banning large-capacity magazines and requiring ammo background checks. Plus things like requiring gun owners to report a weapon theft to law enforcement and making any stealing of a firearm a felony.

(In 2014, inattentive voters approved a liberal sentencing measure that reduced the theft of any gun worth less than $950 to a slap-on-the-wrist misdemeanor.)

State Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) — a longtime gun control advocate — is trying to build a coalition with the Assembly and Gov. Jerry Brown. De León wants the Legislature to handle the gun issue and keep it off the ballot — where it would soak up campaign money that otherwise could go to Democratic candidates.

Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) declared Wednesday that she and several colleagues would "stand up and do what's right."

For Brown, gun control is one of his least favorite topics. After the San Bernardino butchery last month, the governor called for more federal controls. But he has been leery of state legislation, vetoing some bills while signing others.

He did get off a keeper quip last week to reporters: "You haven't asked me about guns or marijuana. And all I would say is, 'Don't smoke marijuana when you're using your gun.'"

Almost anything additional about guns in the State of the Union, Mr. President, could have helped the cause you say you're "passionate" about. It's called leading.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 14, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Obama missed the mark in speech - CAPITOL JOURNAL" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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