Capitol Journal

Bullets are flying in gun battle between Democrats

A Wild West gunfight is bloodying the state Capitol — a sort of fast-draw face-off between leading Democrats.

They’ve all agreed that California needs even stricter gun controls. Too many current restrictions have been shot full of loopholes.

What they’re fighting over is who should enact the new laws: The Legislature and governor? Or the voters through a ballot initiative?

This isn’t merely an academic exercise, of course. Shock: Politics is at play. So is pride.

On one side is state Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). For years, he has advocated tougher gun controls, particularly licensing of ammunition buyers. But he has been shot down by the gun lobby and courts.

On the other side is Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who’s running to replace termed-out Gov. Jerry Brown in 2018. Newsom is trying to show the voters bold leadership by challenging the gun lobby with a potent ballot measure.

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount) hasn’t taken sides. He’s strongly for more gun control. Three of his cousins have been shot and killed, he says. Five family members in all have been gun victims.

But, unlike his Senate counterpart, Rendon isn’t losing sleep over Newsom’s initiative.

“To me, it’s all about the policy,” he says. “I don’t have a problem with [the initiative] going forward.”

Brown is watching and probably wincing. He’s leery of the issue. It riles up firearms fanatics. The governor has signed some gun bills and vetoed others. He’s unpredictable.

Republicans? They’re instinctively opposed to all of it.

But Newsom’s ballot initiative theoretically could help GOP candidates in competitive districts by drawing gun rights voters to the polls.

On the other hand, loose cannon Donald Trump will probably do that by himself. He was endorsed Friday by the National Rifle Assn.

This is the battlefield:

Newsom’s initiative has qualified for the November ballot, which could be crowded with up to 18 propositions. Many will be complex head-scratchers.

To combat voter fatigue and enact laws that are more thought out than initiatives often are, the Legislature enacted a reform that is taking effect this year. It allows initiative backers to withdraw their measure from the ballot after it qualifies.

The purpose is to encourage negotiation between the proponents, legislators and the governor. The Legislature then would pass a compromise measure, saving the expense and turmoil of a ballot battle.

But the initiative withdrawal deadline is June 30.

De León is trying to rush a magazine-load of gun bills through the Legislature and persuade Newsom to compromise, then drop his initiative.

The Senate leader’s arguments: Passing laws is the legislators’ job. It’s what they’re paid for. Also, initiatives often are flawed, resulting in unintended consequences. Bills get more vetting.

Moreover, De León asserts, the initiative could be voted down, setting back gun control nationwide for years.

When a ballot gets too cluttered, frustrated voters tend to proclaim a pox on all propositions and reject every one. That could hurt other Democratic-sponsored measures, such as an extension of soak-the-rich income taxes.

“The initiative process is a blunt instrument. It should always be the last resort,” De León says.

A century ago, he continues, reform Gov. Hiram Johnson created the initiative process “to give citizens a voice and power over the special interests — not to bury them in an avalanche of propositions.”

That’s all true. But cynics contend there’s more to it: A gun control initiative would soak up campaign money that otherwise could go to Democratic candidates. The divisive issue could jeopardize Democrats in pro-gun swing districts.

And, the Newsom camp insinuates, De León also has another motive: To prevent the lieutenant governor from being helped by the initiative.

“The guy is close to a couple of other people rumored to be running for governor,” says Newsom campaign spokesman Dan Newman. They’re former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and environmental activist Tom Steyer. “Personality stuff doesn’t help anyone.”

Newman says Newsom won’t shelve the initiative even if lawmakers pass bills.

“Ours is more comprehensive,” he contends.

And, he adds, “there’s an important political message when California voters stand up to the NRA. That can embolden people across the country.”

The Senate — Democrats at least — bucked the gun lobby last week by passing 11 bills.

The only one supported by Republicans would place a measure on the ballot to correct a flawed 2014 initiative that reduced handgun thefts from a felony to a misdemeanor. The crime would return to being a felony. That fix is also in Newsom’s initiative.

A De León bill offers a simpler approach to ammunition control. Rather than requiring a license to buy ammo, a gun owner would only need to have once undergone a background check.  After that, he’d just swipe a driver’s license.

Another bill would ban possession — not just purchase — of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. That’s one measure the more moderate Assembly is expected to reject. But it’s in Newsom’s initiative.

The Assembly has a load of gun bills that Rendon expects to be voted on after Memorial Day.

That won’t leave much time for negotiating with Newsom even if he wanted to. And if there’s an initiative on the ballot, it will give Brown an excuse not to sign anything. “Let the voters decide.”

My take: Legislation is usually preferable to an initiative. Compromising beats a shootout. But the target is gun control. Whatever can hit it, bulls-eye.

george.skelton@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

 

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