Capitol Journal: Gavin Newsom sets his sights on a well-armed foe: the gun lobby

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom never has feared charging into a blazing barrage of bullets.

While taking on enemy fire, he attracts grateful allies. Many people initially question his wisdom but eventually wind up admiring the boldness.

Newsom is attacking again, this time challenging one of America’s most dreaded political machines: the gun lobby.

“Risky? Sure it is,” he told me. “These guys are exceptionally gifted at intimidation and bullying and are adept grass-roots organizers.

“But their home court is legislative chambers across the country. I think they’re very vulnerable in public. They can intimidate the politicians, but I don’t think they can intimidate the public.”


Newsom, 48, who plans to run for governor in 2018, last week announced he’ll lead a ballot initiative next year to significantly bolster California’s already tough gun laws.

He proposes a statewide ban on possession — not just sales — of high-capacity ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. San Francisco and the city of Los Angeles already have approved similar bans. Newsom also wants to require instant background checks — the first in the nation — for every ammunition purchase. After all, guns don’t kill people. Bullets do.

There was an immediate response — you could call it semi-automatic — from Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition: “If Gavin Newsom wants to declare war on law-abiding gun owners and 2nd Amendment rights, we’re certainly going to bring the fight to him.”

So it could get bloody.

That’s nothing new for Newsom. He was way ahead of his time in 2004 when, as San Francisco mayor, he issued marriage licenses to same-sex couples when it was illegal.

“I was one of those who thought that was the end of his political career,” recalls Garry South, a veteran Democratic consultant. “I was wrong. He saw something that the rest of us didn’t.”

But taking on the National Rifle Assn. may not be all that risky in California. This isn’t Texas or Tennessee. Voters here are becoming increasingly disgusted by gun-toting crackpots mowing down students in mass killings across America.

“Obviously it will bring out the gun nuts,” says South, who advised Newsom in an aborted 2010 gubernatorial bid. “But they’re not going to vote for Gavin Newsom anyway.”

Moreover, Newsom won’t be running on the same ballot as the gun control initiative. That measure, assuming it qualifies with 365,000 voter signatures, will be on the November 2016 ballot. Newsom will be running in 2018.

So it’s doubtful he’ll suffer a fate similar to that of Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in 1982. Bradley was running for governor far ahead in the polls while strongly supporting a ballot initiative to limit handgun purchases and require registration.

Toward the campaign’s end, Bradley’s Republican opponent, state Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian, began targeting gun owners with mailers warning of the anti-handgun measure. They turned out in heavy numbers, voting against the initiative and for Deukmejian, who narrowly beat Bradley. The gun proposal lost in a landslide.

That was an eon ago politically. Today, it’s hard to envision a Republican being elected governor in California. And it’s unlikely any of Newsom’s Democratic rivals for governor would oppose his initiative. That would be a real risk politically.

Some demographics and poll numbers put this in perspective.

The percentage of gun owners in California — roughly 20% — is substantially less than in Texas (36%) or Tennessee (39%), let alone Arkansas (58%) and Alaska (62%).

But not even California gun owners are as uncompromising as the NRA.

In a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, people were asked what they thought was most important: “protecting” gun rights or “controlling” gun ownership. While 58% of gun owners said protecting rights, 38% favored controlling the weapons. Among all adults, 57% answered that it was most important to control the guns.

And 65% of those interviewed said laws regulating gun sales should be stricter. That included 45% of gun owners.

“This is why direct democracy was conceived,” Newsom says. A proposal can be sent directly to the ballot, bypassing skittish politicians in the state Capitol.

Too often in California, the initiative process has been captured by special interests. But the special interest in this case is the gun lobby.

Gov. Jerry Brown has been skeptical of gun control. He has signed some measures and vetoed others, including one that would have banned the sale of firearms capable of holding detachable high-capacity magazines. He also vetoed a bill that would have led to registration of ammunition sales.

Under Newsom’s proposal, owners of high-capacity magazines would be required to sell them to a licensed dealer, take them out of state or turn them over to law enforcement. He’s vague about how that would be enforced.

“All these things, I acknowledge, are a challenge to enforce,” he says. “But when these laws go on the books, people do tend to obey them.”

All but the criminals, the gun lobby argues. It’s a good point. And Newsom and his allies need a better answer.

Newsom previously was pushing for a 2016 ballot measure to legalize marijuana. He’ll still support that effort. But he’ll be leading the gun control cause, his top priority.

That seems wise. It’s better to be protecting people from gun violence than helping them to get high on a drug.

Twitter: @LATimesSkelton