California can't go it alone on guns

Without stiffer national penalties the state's tough weapons laws don't stand a chance against Arizona and Nevada wide-open markets.

SACRAMENTO — California's gun controls are among the toughest in the nation, but they're severely weakened by Washington's failure to pass strong national laws.

It's sort of like the chain analogy — a chain being only as strong as its weakest link.

California is inescapably linked to Arizona and Nevada, states where it's still the Wild West for gun toting.

But even in Tombstone in the 1800s, the Earp brothers banned packing heat in town, which led to the shootout at OK Corral.

These days, criminals are buying weapons at Arizona and Nevada gun shows and hauling them illegally into California.

Anyone buying a firearm in California — whether at a big box or a gun show — must undergo a background check by the state justice department. And there's a 10-day waiting period.

At a gun show in Arizona or Nevada, in contrast, a buyer can immediately toss the weapon in his car and drive off. Maybe even load it first.

Similarly, assault weapons can't be purchased legally in California. Neither can ammunition magazines holding more than 10 bullets. But they can be bought in Arizona and Nevada.

When someone can drive 20 minutes across the border into Reno and arm himself, no questions asked, it greatly undermines California's laws that are designed to keep guns out of the hands of felons, mental misfits and wife beaters. It also thwarts our efforts to hold down the number of mass-killing machines such as assault weapons equipped with high-capacity magazines.

Sometimes, however, out-of-state gun buyers are surprised as they drive back on the interstate.

Their California license plates have been photographed at the gun show parking lot in a covert operation that isn't officially acknowledged by Sacramento. They've been watched at the gun counters. And they get hauled over by state cops after reentering California, particularly if they've been mass-purchasers of assault weapons and are suspected "traffickers."

Here's one illustration of why we don't want neighbors with weak gun laws: A 2010 report by a coalition of mayors traced guns used in crimes. Adjusting for population, it found that Nevada and Arizona were among the states with the highest export rate of crime guns.

Nevada was No. 9, shipping out 31 crime guns per 100,000 residents. Arizona was No. 13, Mississippi No. 1, California No. 46.

A lot of those Arizona and Nevada crime weapons wind up in the arsenals of California street gangs.

"Arizona is a big problem for us," says L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. "Without federal gun laws, state and city laws in California are half-measures."

Villaraigosa is beating the drums for President Obama's sweeping gun control proposals. Among other things, they would close the so-called gun show loophole by requiring background checks for all firearms purchases in the country. They'd also join California in banning assault weapons and limiting magazines to 10 rounds.

"When the Founders passed the 2nd Amendment, they didn't have assault weapons back then," Villaraigosa notes. "The notion that you're violating the 2nd Amendment by banning assault weapons doesn't pass the history test or the laugh test."

He adds: "If you need a high-capacity magazine with over 10 bullets to hunt a deer, you're in the wrong sport."

Of course, the disturbing truth is that some gun worshipers are not arming themselves to hunt deer. They're targeting the American government.

One troubled man — who clearly should be prohibited from possessing even a BB gun — left me this phone message a few years ago: "Guns are not for hunting. When will you people figure that out? Guns are for hunting down politicians when they steal your rights away through tyranny. Hello!"

This character continued: "Any call for gun control is treason.... You can't protect your freedom when the government has more guns than the people."

That's the type of dangerous paranoia the gun lobby nurtures, making armed whackos even more deranged and sending politicians into hiding for their political safety.

Gov. Jerry Brown generally has been quiet about guns. But last week he endorsed the concept of Obama's plan.

"One of the missing ingredients" in California's strong laws, the governor told reporters, is that guns "come in from other states — Arizona, Nevada — virtually free-flow.... So national legislation is crucial."

California politicians who support gun control should be pushing the hardest for Obama's legislation. To bolster their own state's laws. Some are.

"I'm very excited about what the president is proposing," says state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris. "It's long overdue. We know guns are being brought into California illegally and usually we find out about it too late."

The attorney general is running a program — the only one in the nation — that tracks known handgun and assault weapon owners to make sure they're still legally permitted to possess a firearm.

If one is convicted of a felony, becomes mentally ill or is hit with a restraining order, a red flag goes up. Then a squad of officers may knock on the door and seize his guns.

Last year, near 1,900 weapons were confiscated from such people in California. And if that is government "gun grabbing" — a term the gun lobby uses to stoke fear — so be it. It's about keeping guns out of the hands of bad guys, supposedly an NRA aim.

Obama's gun control proposal would enable California's bad-guy-tracking system to potentially operate nationally.

When the NRA argues that California's strict gun laws are not effective, that's baloney. But our laws would be even more effective if the NRA's main goal wasn't to keep national gun controls pathetically weak.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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