Chasm divides gun control and gun rights advocates

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Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO — “Living in parallel universes,” is how Senate leader Darrell Steinberg describes it. Gun control and gun rights advocates “talking past each other.”

Emanating from different cultures, incapable of agreeing on how to make us all safer from firearms.

Their opposite views were in full voice last week in the Legislature during a marathon 10-hour committee hearing — longest anyone could remember — on gun bills.


Unlike in Washington, where gun control forces couldn’t muster enough strength in the U.S. Senate to pass legislation expanding background checks, a state Senate committee in Sacramento approved eight bills to strengthen California’s already stringent firearms regulations.

Unfortunately, without universal background checks nationwide — not only in gun stores, which already is the law, but at gun shows and via the Internet — California is vulnerable to Wild-West dealing in other states.

Criminals and mental misfits can buy virtually any weapon they want at a Nevada or Arizona gun show and cart it into California, circumventing this state’s tough background checks.

Actually, in Washington there was solid majority support for expanding background checks — 55 Senate votes. But because of that chamber’s arcane rules born of undemocratic filibusters, the bill needed 60, or a 60% supermajority.

In Sacramento, where Democrats overwhelmingly rule, most gun legislation can be passed on a simple majority vote.

One exception is a bill to speed up the confiscation of guns from Californians who bought them legally, but later were disqualified because of a violent crime, a restraining order or mental illness. There are roughly 20,000 people possessing around 40,000 firearms who aren’t supposed to have them.


The bill, SB 140 by Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), requires a two-thirds vote in each legislative house. It would appropriate $24 million to hire enough agents to seize the weapons.

But despite opposition by the gun lobby — it objects to using money from background check fees paid by gun buyers — the measure has been sailing through the Legislature. It passed the Assembly 57-10 last week, with only Republicans voting “no.”

This bill, however, offers a clear example of political polarization in the Capitol.

Republicans proposed a perfectly sensible amendment that would have required all the illegal weapons to be confiscated in one year, rather than over three as mandated by the bill. Democrats quickly tabled the amendment, cutting off debate.

“If we’re going to be serious about dealing with felons with guns, then we need to take advantage of the money and make it a priority,” Assemblyman Donald Wagner (R-Irvine), the amendment’s author, told me.

“A lot of folks on my [GOP] side want to do something. They don’t want to just be saying ‘no.’ But they didn’t even let us debate….

“I won’t say it’s impossible to come together. And I won’t say one side is entirely right and the other is entirely wrong. But both sides need to get beyond their hardened positions of the past.”


Hardened positions, however, dominated the long meeting of the Senate Public Safety Committee. Republicans followed the gun lobby in opposing every measure. Democrats passed all of them on party-line 5-to-2 votes.

“There’s a difference between opposing every bill and your saying, ‘We would support it if you did this or that,’ ” Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, finally vented to gun lobbyists. “It would help your credibility.”

The committee approved bills to:

•Prohibit the sale of semiautomatic rifles that hold detachable magazines. SB 374, Steinberg. The senator called them “mass killing machines.”

• Ban even the possession of magazines holding more than 10 rounds. They’re already illegal to buy. SB 396, Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley).

• Require ammunition buyers to pass a background check and obtain a license. SB 53, Sen. Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles).

• Add repeated alcohol and drug offenses as reasons for denying gun ownership. SB 755, Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis).


• Require long gun purchasers to pass a written safety test. That’s already required for handgun buyers. SB 683, Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego).

These and other bills passed by the committee perhaps could use some expert tweaking — even gutting — and the gun lobbyists are experts. But they’re such inflexible hard-liners that Democrats ignore them.

Just as intransigent were scores of citizens who lined up to emotionally argue for gun rights. They repeatedly voiced two familiar mantras: Gun control laws are unconstitutional because of the 2nd Amendment. And the laws don’t stop gun violence, they only harass innocent law-abiding citizens.

“My rights are protected by the United States Constitution and not affected by an L.A. Times poll,” protested one tea party member, referring to a recent USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll that found overwhelming support for stricter gun controls.

Countering the constitutional argument, Steinberg quoted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia in a 2008 opinion that affirmed the right of individuals to own firearms. “Like most rights,” Scalia wrote, “the right secured by the 2nd Amendment is not unlimited….

“The right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”


As for badgering law-abiding citizens, Steinberg noted that four killers in the last five mass shootings had no prior criminal records. And the fifth had been guilty only of a minor offense.

Murderers often are law-abiders until they’re not — until they shoot their wife or get fired and mow down former co-workers.

Also testifying were long lines of gun control advocates, including trauma surgeons and mothers, some of whom had lost children to gun fire.

Yes, these gun combatants are living in parallel universes. And so are Sacramento and Washington. Too bad they can’t figure out how to fire in sync at the same enemy: gun violence.