RANDALL BENTON / Bee file, 2012

Handguns fill a display case at a gun shop in North Highlands. A letter writer says the right to bear arms is not just about hunting, but also self-defense.

Jerry Brown sidesteps national debate over gun laws

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 9:45 pm

In the month following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Democratic politicians throughout the country – from President Barack Obama to governors, state lawmakers and mayors – have heightened calls for stricter gun laws.

Noticeably absent among those voices is Gov. Jerry Brown's.

"No," Brown said last week, when asked at a news conference if he could address the subject.

Pressed, the Democratic leader of the nation's most populous state said, "California has the strongest gun laws in the country. I'll be glad to look at other ones."

Brown's avoidance of a roaring national debate about gun control is in contrast to a flurry of pro-gun control activity around him at the Capitol. His mixed record on the subject calls into question how any number of gun- related regulations that reach his desk this year will be decided.

"The proof will be in the pudding at the end of the Legislature," said Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles. "What counts is what gets across the finish line and what he applies his pen to at the end of the day."

While Obama called for a federal review of gun control measures, lawmakers in California opened the legislative session this month with proposals for a variety of firearms-related regulations.

Meanwhile, the state treasurer, Bill Lockyer, has gained national attention with his campaign to divest the state's two largest public pension funds of holdings in the manufacturers of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

"There's a lot of energy around this issue right now," said Benjamin Van Houten, managing attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. "I think it'd be to (Brown's) benefit and to California's benefit for him to be more vocal and more of a leader here."

In his first year in office, Brown signed controversial legislation prohibiting openly carrying unloaded handguns in public. The following year, he signed a bill extending that prohibition to long guns. He also signed legislation requiring the registration of rifles, a bill Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, called "probably one of the most important gun bills of the decade."

But Brown has rejected other gun-related legislation. When he vetoed a bill in 2011 involving ammunition restrictions tied up in legal challenges, Brown wrote, "Let's keep our powder dry on amendments until the court case runs its course."

Before that, Brown infuriated some gun control advocates when, as state attorney general, he sided with the National Rifle Association in a U.S. Supreme Court case challenging Chicago's handgun ban.

In a 2009 brief in that case, Brown wrote that California is a "national leader in passing common-sense legislation to regulate firearms," but he argued that without the Supreme Court's precedent-setting intervention, "California citizens could be deprived of the constitutional right to possess handguns in their homes."

This is a governor who has defended the Second Amendment and spoken proudly about owning guns. A decades-old photograph shows Brown on a Colusa ranch with two former governors, Earl Warren and Brown's father, Pat Brown – the younger Brown holding dead geese in one hand and a shotgun in the other.

Sam Paredes, executive director of the advocacy group Gun Owners of California, said that when Brown took office in 2011 "there was conversation and hope among the supporters of gun rights that he would be at least sympathetic to listening to the pro-gun side."

Brown, Paredes said, had told gun owners "he was good on guns and good on hunting, that his father had given him guns and that he enjoyed shooting them, and all that kind of stuff."

But Paredes' hope for Brown was deflated by the governor's support for California's open-carry ban, among other measures.

"Our expectations are that he will probably continue to be convinced by the radical leadership in the Legislature to sign anti-gun legislation," Paredes said.

Among the bills Brown may have to consider this year are proposals to restrict ammunition sales, to prohibit certain mentally ill people from buying guns and to ban devices that allow ammunition to be reloaded so quickly that semi-automatic weapons function like assault weapons.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, said he expects Brown to approach such bills with "a firm degree of skepticism."

"My own interpretation of what he has done and said is that he is not necessarily disinclined to support various gun control measures but that he comes at them with a serious question in his mind, always, that requires him to be persuaded," Dickinson said. "I don't have much doubt that there will be additional measures related to gun control put on his desk."

Skinner, Dickinson and de León are among lawmakers who hope to push gun- related legislation to Brown.

De León said he spent three hours with the governor in Brown's office last year discussing a bill regarding the regulation of BB guns, which Brown ultimately signed.

"He asked a lot of questions, and he poked and he prodded," de León said. "He's not someone who's going to roll over because of a turn of events, and I found that to be refreshing."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by David Siders



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