Neither Matt Dittmer nor the people he shoots with are happy about a new law that will preserve information about their gun purchases in a California state database. But he is resigned to it.
“I don’t like it, but I’m living in a state where I don’t have a choice,” Dittmer said as he stopped by Auburn Outdoor Sports on a recent afternoon to buy a sleek black AR rifle.
In the aftermath of a horrific shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, California lawmakers advanced dozens of gun control measures in 2013. Despite that fervor for tougher firearms laws, the most stringent and far-reaching measures largely failed. The discards included a bill by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg , D-Sacramento, that would have outlawed semi-automatic weapons with detachable magazines.
Even as those bills met their demise, a previously passed gun control measure loomed. Assembly Bill 809, signed into law in 2011, imposes on rifles and shotguns the same record-keeping requirements that currently apply to handguns.
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Starting on Jan. 1, 2014, the California Department of Justice will retain information on long-gun purchases, data it had formerly been compelled to destroy within five days. Dealers will need to register purchases with the state.
Dittmer said it wouldn’t influence the types of firearms he chooses to purchase, despite his view that the measure is symptomatic of California’s increasingly constricting gun restraints.
“It won’t affect me personally,” Dittmer said, “because I do abide by all the laws.”
While Dittmer said his shooting range compatriots are anticipating the law, it was the first that Nancy Stewart, who had stopped in to pick up a pair of .22-caliber rifles to expand the family collection, had heard of it. Stewart said the measure wouldn’t deter her from buying a gun. But it did give her pause.
“You wonder, what does this information mean?” said Stewart, a 55-year-old paralegal who lives in Grass Valley. “My ultimate concern is if someone knocks on my door and says you’ve got three guns, we need two of them.”
Other reactions among gun advocates range from bewildered to disturbed.
“This is the one that sends the tremor, that reaches every owner in the state,” said Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “It is the one that scares us the most.”
Supporters of the legislation said it closes a dangerous gap in California’s gun laws, creating uniformity in firearms regulations by treating pistols and rifles the same.
“One of the things the Legislature found persuasive is that long guns play a large role in our state’s epidemic of gun violence,” said Juliet Leftwich, legal director for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, one of AB 809’s sponsors.
Dozens of police chiefs backed the bill as an addition to their law enforcement arsenal. They said it will bolster efforts to trace guns recovered at crime scenes and to seize guns from people legally barred from owning them because of past crimes or mental illness. Officials will have more comprehensive gun purchase data to compare against California’s Armed and Prohibited Persons list, a catalog of people banned from owning guns that the Legislature fortified with an extra $24 million this year.
It will also help protect officers conducting criminal investigations by informing them of the type of firepower they might encounter, said Fairfield police Chief Walt Tibbet.
“Currently the one area we are very vulnerable in is trying to understand the availability of long guns, and more and more we’re seeing suspects with either rifles or sawed-off rifles,” Tibbet said.
“It’s not our intent to take guns away from law-abiding citizens,” he added. “I’m trying to keep my officers from being shot.”
Gun owners critical of the law argue it will target people who purchase their guns legally and leave a paper trail, rather than those who obtain their guns illicitly.
“It really does nothing to address the criminals themselves,” said Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko, one of a minority of law enforcement officials to openly oppose the bill. “Generally, the criminals that have firearms, they aren’t on any database.”
Beneath questions about the law’s effectiveness lies a sense of unease about how the trove of data will be used. Many gun owners see a sinister intent behind a measure tied to confiscating guns, Paredes said. He predicted that fear would lead to a surge in sales before the new law kicks in.
“Everybody is running down to the local gun store and buying whatever long guns they want to have and don’t want the government to know they have it,” Paredes said. “I think between now and Dec. 31, you’ll see quite a run on long guns.”
Auburn Outdoor Sports would seem to affirm Paredes’ forecast. The store has run ads bearing the phrase “LEGISLATIVE ALERT” and warning that customers have until the new year “to purchase your non-registered rifle or shot gun.”
But Billy Prior, the store’s owner, said he has not seen an influx of customers looking to buy guns before the law changes. Prior, 48, has been in the business long enough to see how people react to new regulations, and he said younger gun owners already expect registration. The loudest dissenters, Prior predicted, will soon adapt.
“Some people say, ‘Forget it, I’m not buying a gun after the first of the year.’ They’re going to buy what they want now,” Prior said. “But what’s going to happen is six months from now, a year from now, something is going to come out, they’re going to want it and they’re going to buy it.”
Anecdotal evidence has long-gun sales ranking “somewhere between average and exceptional” this month, according to Brandon Combs, president of the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees. That could reflect a seasonal phenomenon, Combs said, as people head to gun stores to pick out Christmas presents.
Still, Combs has heard skepticism of how the new purchase record requirements will play out. His organization is already mulling lawsuits on behalf of gun owners Combs said were mistakenly flagged by the state as ineligible to possess firearms.
“I think it’s not entirely unfounded, a fear of the state misusing the information,” Combs said.
Only people who pose a legitimate public-safety risk will have anything to worry about, said Steve Lindley, director of the California Department of Justice’s Bureau of Firearms.
“If you do become prohibited, we are going to come confiscate your firearms,” Lindley said. “But only people who have done something in their life – committed a felony, committed a violent misdemeanor, they are a fugitive from justice or they have been deemed mentally ill and a danger to themselves or others. We need to take action and prevent those people from possessing firearms.”
That prohibited class represents a small sliver of California’s population of gun owners, Lindley said. Otherwise, gun owners can rest easy: His department has no plans to “go out and confiscate people’s firearms for no reason.”
“We still have our Second Amendment rights here in California,” he said.