Two top California Democrats feud over an issue they agree on: gun control

California Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, left, and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, right, applaud at Gov. Jerry Brown's State of the State speech in January. De León and Newsom are feuding over gun control, something they both support.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A political war of words has broken out between Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom over how to enact new gun control laws in California.

Newsom is close to turning in 600,000 signatures to put a measure on the November ballot designed to reduce gun violence, but De León wants him to agree to step aside if the issue can gain traction in the Legislature by June.

The Los Angeles lawmaker warned his fellow Democrat in a private letter on Thursday that pursuing the initiative could “derail” gun control.


Newsom wrote back later Thursday urging De León to join his initiative drive. He voiced skepticism about legislative efforts to address gun control, adding that the measure De León supports is “fundamentally different” from his ballot measure, the Safety for All Act.

De León has been trying for more than two years to pass a series of gun control bills that include background checks for those who buy ammunition, and bans on semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines and the possession of large-capacity magazines.

In October, Newsom launched a petition drive to qualify an initiative for the November ballot that would implement many of the gun control measures proposed by lawmakers, including background checks for bullet buyers and a ban on possessing magazine clips holding more than 10 rounds.

Newsom believes he will have enough signatures to qualify the initiative by June 30 and plans to pursue the measure even if legislators act on a batch of bills regulating firearms, said Dan Newman, a campaign advisor.

De León said it does not sit well with him that Newsom’s plan to pursue the initiative — no matter what — has been conveyed to members of the Assembly who have yet to take up the bills.

“I am troubled by reports that you plan to move forward with your initiative regardless of our commitment to work together and what the Legislature can accomplish this session,” De León wrote to Newsom. “This would amount to a risky all-or-nothing strategy that endangers the potential for enacting strong measures this year that will surely save lives.”


De León said that he believes the legislation can be passed.

“A major impediment to success, however, is your stated position not to pull the Safety for All Act from the ballot under any circumstances,” De León wrote. “I fully understand the utility and strategy of public and private posturing.

“The downside is you will provide aid to gun-control opponents by giving cover to reluctant legislators who would rather side-step this important issue in lieu of a ballot initiative,” De León wrote in the two-page letter, which also said Newsom’s ammunition regulation “would deny California the flexibility to implement a more thoughtful and cost-effective approach.”

In an interview with The Times, De León noted that changes in the initiative process now allow the proponents of a ballot measure to withdraw it if the Legislature acts satisfactorily on the issues addressed.

De León said Newsom is free to file the signatures and have them verified, but he wants Newsom to be willing to drop the initiative in June if legislators take action. Gatherers are now out on the streets collecting at least 365,880 valid voter signatures. They may turn them as soon as next week.

“The initiative makes reforms the Legislature has failed to enact, as well as others the Legislature isn’t even considering, and others that they simply don’t have the authority to legally address,” Newsom wrote to the Senate leader.

Newsom said only an initiative, for instance, can amend part of 2014’s criminal justice measure, Proposition 47 — a portion that critics say would allow people convicted of theft of a firearm to be charged with a lesser crime than felony grand theft.

Provisions in the Newsom initiative that go beyond the reach of the legislative measure include requiring state and federal governments to share data from California’s list of people who are prohibited from possessing firearms.

“Your suggestion that there is `a good chance’ of the Legislature approving some related proposals is far from a guarantee for the state’s gun violence victims,” Newsom wrote. “The Legislature has shown mixed results in passing legislation to address gun violence, including failures to pass some of the provisions proposed in the Safety for All Act. In contrast, polls show the public strongly supports the Safety for All Act.”

De León, however, said the Legislature was elected to pass laws.

“When you go to the ballot it should not be the first choice. It should always be a last choice, because it’s a blunt instrument and once you lock it in constitutionally, it’s almost impossible to reverse that policy,” De León told The Times. “He should allow the Legislature to do its work.”

This is not the first time the two powerful Democratic politicians — both with ambitions for higher office — have feuded.

In November, De León acted to slash a third of Newsom’s staff, notifying Newsom that two Senate employees who had been on loan to the lieutenant governor’s office were being reassigned.

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