With the announcement early Monday that he had outlawed the public display of handguns in California, Gov. Jerry Brown bucked a national trend toward more lenient firearms laws and placed himself in the political cross-hairs of the state's 2nd Amendment activists.
Brown, the owner of three guns, said in a statement that he signed a bill banning the open carrying of handguns at the urging of law enforcement officials, who included Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck. It will take effect Jan. 1.
"I listened to the California police chiefs," the governor wrote.
California has allowed weapons to be displayed in public, provided they are not loaded. Gun enthusiasts took advantage of that to gather at Bay Area Starbucks outlets last year with pistols on their hips. Police chiefs and sheriffs complained that panicked customers' calls were diverting them from chasing real criminals.
Sam Paredes, executive director of the advocacy group Gun Owners of California, said the ban could lead, paradoxically, to more carrying of handguns. Courts, he reasoned, could now force the state's police to distribute more concealed-weapon permits to allow citizens to exercise their rights.
"This situation will be a catalyst to unite all of the gun community in lawsuits," Paredes said. "The probable outcome is you will have far more people carrying concealed loaded guns as opposed to openly carrying unloaded guns."
The open-carry prohibition was one of a clutch of bills the governor approved that stepped up gun control in California. One requires that sales records on long guns, including rifles, be kept by the state Justice Department to help solve crimes; another funds an aggressive campaign to get weapons held by felons off the streets.
By backing such measures, Brown is wading into a contentious national debate — and moving in a distinctly different direction from most of the country, according to organizations on both sides of the firearm debate.
Forty-two states allow open carry. Four recently passed laws permitting residents to tote guns anywhere, even into churches, bars and government buildings.
A host of other measures, such as Nevada relaxing requirements for concealed-weapon permits and Pennsylvania giving greater latitude for the use of firearms in self-defense, have been signed by the wave of Republican governors who swept into office last year.
Brown's recent moves are the latest example of California forging its own path on gun regulations, said Brian Malte of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
"Over the last few years, California is the only state where gun control laws are being enacted on a frequent basis," he said.
But Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber), who voted against the open-carry ban in the Legislature, decried Brown's actions, particularly because the governor recently made counties responsible for some criminals who in the past would have been sent to state prisons.
"The government's responsibility to provide for public safety is faltering," Nielsen said in a statement, "and now we're impeding honest, law-abiding citizens from being able to exercise their constitutional rights to protect themselves and their families?"
Second Amendment activists say they want to remove the stigma that has become attached to guns by carrying their firearms during everyday activities. They contend that the practice is a throwback to pre-20th century society, in which it was criminals who hid their weapons and law-abiding citizens who advertised that they were packing heat.
To those whose job is enforcing laws, the practice is a dangerous anachronism.
"For law enforcement officers and community members, any type of weapon being carried, openly or concealed, could appear as a threat to their well-being and is regarded as a public safety threat," Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Monday. He joined Beck and other California police officials in supporting the measure.
The new law exempts peace officers, hunters and people attending gun shows or going to shooting ranges from its penalties of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. It does not prohibit the public carrying of unloaded long-barrel weapons such as rifles — a silence that open-carry advocates say they will exploit.
Yih-Chau Chang, an open-carry practitioner in the Bay Area, said he was disappointed but not surprised by Brown's action. He also said it would not stop him and others from publicly demonstrating their rights.
"Come Jan. 1," he said, "you will see us out there carrying unloaded rifles and shotguns."