Calif. Gov. Brown signs gun control package: An emerging model for states?

California's new gun laws limit the size of magazines, ban 'bullet buttons' that enable shooters to change magazines quickly, and extend background checks to those buying ammunition.

(AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes, File)
In 2012, then Los Angeles Police Cmdr. Andrew Smith, Media Relations and Community Affairs Group shows assault weapons exchanged at the LA Memorial Sports Arena in Los Angeles. Gov. Jerry Brown signed six stringent gun-control measures Friday, July 1, 2016, that will require people to turn in high-capacity magazines and require background checks for ammunition sales, as California Democrats seek to strengthen gun laws that are already among the strictest in the nation.

When California Gov. Jerry Brown signed an expansive gun control package into law on Friday, he did so as a guy who owns at least three guns.

The state's new package limits the size of magazines, bans "bullet buttons" that enable shooters to change magazines quickly, and extends background checks to those buying ammunition.

The International Business Times called the Democratic governor’s signature a “rare victory for gun control laws.” Yet with US public opinion on the march regarding citizen access to high-powered weaponry, it could also suggest a future in which more Americans may face limited, but not draconian, restrictions on their Second Amendment rights.

To be sure, there are swirling crosscurrents on gun regulation in the US. Some 41 states have liberalized public gun-carry by making it easier to obtain concealed-carry permits, of which there are now more than 12 million in the US. About half of Americans, however, now live in states that have seen new gun control laws passed since the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

And given a lack of federal consensus on gun ownership regulations, states will continue to lead the way toward establishing a state-by-state approach, according to UCLA law professor Adam Winkler.

“We should all be in agreement about what we can do to protect the law-abiding gun owner but still do more to stop terrorists from getting their hands on guns,” says Mr. Winkler.

The new California laws come amid a national debate over mass shootings, including one in Orlando in June and last fall in California, when a San Bernardino couple, apparently inspired by ISIS, killed 14 people at an office Christmas party. It also comes amid a rise in violent crime in cities across the US. California has been hit particularly hard, seeing its homicide-by-gun rate rise by 10 percent last year alone, though overall levels are still below the 2010 numbers.

Long a legislative leader in the US on issues from energy to farming, California’s new gun control package also comes amid growing judicial concerns about so-called right to carry laws, which give officials little leeway in denying concealed carry licenses. Last month, the federal 9th  Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of California to control who can carry a concealed weapon, requiring “good cause” to do so.

Gun rights activists criticize the new California laws as evidence of a fundamental move toward citizen disarmament.

“[California’s] ’gunpocalypse’ represents a total shift from the paradigm that holds gun ownership as an unalienable right to a more post-modern view of gun ownership as a privilege bestowed — or revoked — by government in degrees,” writes AWR Hawkins, the 2nd  Amendment columnist for the conservative Breitbart News. 

Yet for many, the new California laws represent a common sense approach: making it harder to legally borrow guns, for example. Gun owners will also have to pass a background check to buy ammunition.

What’s more, it wasn’t a total victory for gun-control advocates. Governor Brown vetoed five other gun control bills that had reached his desk, including one that would have made it a crime to not report a stolen gun.

Through his long history in California politics, including two separate stints as governor, Brown is often seen as the epitome of a left-coast, left-wing intellectual. But in 2011, Gov. Brown acknowledged to a law enforcement group that he has a small arsenal at his house. For protection, “I've got three guns and one dog," he told the Alliance of California Law Enforcement. His aides declined to identify the governor’s personal weaponry.

"My goal in signing these bills is to enhance public safety by tightening our existing laws in a responsible and focused manner, while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners," Brown said in a signing measure on Friday.

The shootings in Orlando, where 49 people died, has again focused the nation’s attention on gun rights. To be sure, the shooter’s motivation seemed to have been terror-related. Yet many Americans couldn’t understand why a man who had been investigated by the FBI wasn’t flagged when he went in to buy the military-style Sig Sauer rifle he used as part of the attack.

As a result, Congress, for its part, has focused on whether those whose names appear on secret government “watch lists” should be able to purchase weapons.

And as has happened after other mass shootings, polls have swung from Americans favoring legal assault-style weapons to suggesting, by small margins, that they should be banned outright.

Yet states such as California have spent more time tweaking the margins of established gun law, not the core right of gun ownership that the Supreme Court affirmed in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller case.

Indeed, politicians realize that “banning [weapons] is not the way to go, mainly because it won’t have much of an impact on crime reduction and will stimulate the most fervent opposition by gun rights proponents,” says Winkler, the UCLA law prof.

Much of the debate, especially as the country looks for answers after mass shootings and terrorist threats, swirls around a fundamental question: Do guns make society safer or more dangerous?

While mass shootings capture most of the media attention, only 2 percent of US gun homicides fit that category. As Evan Osnos wrote last week in the New Yorker, “[m]ost of the time, when Americans shoot one another, it is impulsive, up close, and apolitical.” 

Economists, criminologists, and health professionals are conflicted on the issue, but the American public, at least, has shifted its thoughts on the corrollary between gun ownership and home safety.

In 2000, only 35 percent of Americans thought guns made homes safer, according to Gallup. Even as violent crime decreased over the next 15 years, the number of Americans who believe guns make homes safer rose to 63 percent by 2014, two years after a gunman killed 12 people and injured 70 others at a showing of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colo., using a similar rifle to the one used in Orlando.

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