Why are Democrats in California at loggerheads over gun control?

The Californian Senate on Thursday debated a raft of gun control measures – competing with a separate initiative to put remarkably similar measures to the ballot, asking voters instead of legislators to decide.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP
California Senate leader Kevin de Leon (D) urges lawmakers to approve his gun control bill SB1235 Thursday, in Sacramento, Calif. The bill, that regulates the sale of ammunition was approved the Senate and sent to the Assembly.

Legislators in California debated a raft of gun control measures, Thursday, which, if passed, would tighten laws in a state that already has some of the strictest gun legislation in the country.

Some of the more prominent of the eleven bills under consideration seek to ban weapons with easily detachable magazines, ban magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, and implement background checks for ammunition purchases.

Yet the measures come at a time when the state’s Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was already in the throes of arranging a referendum ballot to consult Californians on a remarkably similar suite of gun control laws, leading some to question the motives driving the parallel efforts.

"We raise our children in communities, not war zones," Assemblyman Marc Levine (D) told the Associated Press. "Military assault weapons have no place on our streets and gun violence must not be tolerated."

One of the key issues under consideration relates to so-called bullet buttons – quick release mechanisms developed for ammunition cartridges, in an effort to circumvent California’s requirement that most rifles should have magazines that can only be changed with the aid of a tool.

Gun control advocates aim to eliminate bullet buttons, hoping that mass shooters would be able to inflict less carnage if weapons were more difficult to reload.

Unsurprisingly, the debate has largely divided people along the usual political fault lines, with Democrats supporting tighter measures in the name of safety, while Republicans oppose them on the basis that gun laws only hinder those keen on following the law.

Yet, on this occasion, there is an added twist, one that apparently pits Democrats against others of their own party.

Lieutenant Governor Newsom, who is pushing for the ballot, is a Democrat running for governor in 2018, hoping to use both his stance on firearms, as well as another proposed ballot on the legalization of recreational marijuana, as centerpieces of his campaign.

But others of his party worry that putting gun control to a vote will fire up gun rights supporters, thereby risking an increased turnout of conservative voters; they are also of the opinion that lawmakers are better placed to craft legislation.

California Senate President Kevin de Leon asked Newsom to hold off on his ballot initiative, to allow lawmakers to reach a verdict. Newsom refused.

"They both want tougher gun laws in California and they both want credit for it," Dan Schnur, a former Republican strategist who now heads the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, told Reuters.

Senator De Leon, a Democrat heavyweight in California who represents Los Angeles, has declined to endorse Newsom’s candidacy and is said to be close to potential rivals for the governorship, including former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

"The initiative process is a blunt instrument and should always be the last resort – not the first," de Leon said Monday in an email to Reuters. "It would be preferable to achieve policymaking on such a complex issue as gun control through the legislative process."

Newsom dismisses any aspersions on his motives, saying that his ballot initiative is more comprehensive, tackling issues that have repeatedly stalled in the legislature.

"He will get plenty of exposure this fall via his support for the marijuana initiative and Hillary for President," said Dan Newman, Newsom's campaign strategist. "Being relentlessly attacked by the NRA isn't something he needs for his personal ambition."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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