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If California voters approve stronger gun control, the message sent at the ballot box will be heard across the U.S.

If California voters approve stronger gun control, the message sent at the ballot box will be heard across the U.S.
(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

Proposition 63 would enact the toughest gun controls in the United States. But it also would do something else: represent an astonishing historical milestone.

And if passed as expected, the ballot measure would illustrate a textbook example of how public policy can be radically changed in a democracy laden with competing checks and balances.

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How is that? Through the long, slow process of taking incremental steps over decades. By pushing hard and steadily, but with patience.

Massive change doesn't necessarily have to come suddenly through a pitchforks-and-torches rebellion.

Who could have possibly imagined getting to this point on gun regulations 34 years ago?

California today is considered the toughest gun control state. But in 1982, strongly supporting a handgun control ballot measure made Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley a huge target in his race for governor.

Bradley, a Democrat, had been running far ahead in the polls. But toward the campaign's end, his Republican opponent, state Atty. Gen. George Deukmejian, began attacking Bradley on the gun issue. The gun proposal lost in a landslide and Deukmejian won narrowly.

But largely because of Gov. Deukmejian, California began turning toward gun control a few years later.

What happened was a mass shooting, as usually is the case before there's a cry of outrage for more regulation. A young racist drifter with an AK-47 shot up a Stockton schoolyard in 1989, killing five Asian immigrant children and wounding 30 other kids.

The Republican governor almost immediately endorsed legislation to ban assault weapons.

"My thoughts simply were that regardless of what argument somebody might make about having the right to own and possess a gun, there was no common-sense reason for someone to have an assault weapon," Deukmejian told me years later.

So the assault weapons ban was enacted, albeit riddled with loopholes that the Legislature had to keep closing in future years.

One of the bill's principal authors, then-state Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), had to fight off an aggressive recall attempt by the National Rifle Assn. He survived, but it ended his political career.

Through the 1990s and into the 2000s, the Legislature kept strengthening firearms regulations — requiring background checks, limiting handgun purchases, forcing registration of long guns. Name it.

What good has it done? Since 2000, gun deaths in California have fallen 20%, while nationally they've remained roughly the same.

Unfortunately, another shooting massacre somewhere can always be counted on to prod lawmakers into further gun tightening — at least in Sacramento, if not in Washington. California's Legislature reacted strongly to last December's mass shooting in San Bernardino that left 14 dead and at least 22 wounded.

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The lawmakers passed a raft of gun bills. And Gov. Jerry Brown signed roughly half.

Now back to Proposition 63, the product of Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. He's using the measure — along with a marijuana legalization initiative, Proposition 64 — to enhance his statewide image and political operation as he runs for governor in 2018.

So right off, that shows a stark political contrast from the past. Bradley was mortally wounded by the gun issue. Newsom believes the issue will boost him, and it probably will.

But it has caused infighting with Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles). De León orchestrated this year's gun legislation and felt pride of authorship. Also, De León probably will be backing someone else for governor in 2018.

The senator tried to persuade Newsom to drop his initiative and negotiate a compromise deal in the Legislature. But the lieutenant governor wanted no part of it.

After the bills were enacted, De León called Newsom's initiative "irrelevant" because "we have taken care of business." Newsom's camp then took nasty shots at the Senate leader.

But the only thing that matters in the real world is that both gun control packages are good steps forward.

De León last week endorsed the initiative, declaring "we must send a powerful and united message to the national gun lobby that California will not capitulate to political bullying."

There's one identical feature of both packages: a ban on possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds.

Aside from that, there's not much duplication, Newsom insists.

"I categorically reject that these [Proposition 63] issues have already been addressed," he says.

Both contain the nation's first background checks for ammunition buyers. The legislation's checks are far less cumbersome for gun owners than the initiative's and include more exemptions. The bill states that its checks would preempt the initiative's, but that's expected to be settled in court.

"Ammunition is the last frontier of gun safety," Newsom says. "A gun has never killed anyone unless it's used as a blunt instrument. It's a gun and ammunition."

The ballot measure would require convicted felons to surrender their firearms prior to sentencing. "That's a big deal," Newsom says.

It also would treat any gun theft as a felony. Voters two years ago screwed up and decreed the theft of most handguns a misdemeanor.

Polls show the measure being favored by roughly 2 to 1.

The National Rifle Assn. is waving the white flag and spending its money on other battles.

Proposition 63's passage would send a strong message to politicians everywhere that citizens are demanding a tighter rein on guns.

But, unfortunately, the message probably wouldn't be noticed until the next shooting massacre.

Follow @LATimesSkelton on Twitter

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