Capitol Alert

California’s gun control initiative would toughen already-strict laws

Explaining California's new assault weapon ban

New California laws will broaden the definition of prohibited assault weapons, cracking down on a quick-reloading device referred to as the "bullet button."
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New California laws will broaden the definition of prohibited assault weapons, cracking down on a quick-reloading device referred to as the "bullet button."

California already has some of the nation’s strictest gun regulations, and they could get even stricter if voters pass Proposition 63 this November. Here’s what you need to know about the ballot measure.

Q: What does Proposition 63 do?

A: Several things. The headline item is background checks for ammunition purchases, a policy that has been adopted in recent years by several states, including New York. It would also outlaw the possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, require reporting of lost and stolen firearms, institute new legal procedures for confiscating guns from those prohibited from owning them, mandate sharing of state information with the FBI, and clarify that gun theft can always be charged as a felony.

Q: Some of that sounds familiar. Doesn’t California already have these laws?

A: Two of them are set to take effect even if Proposition 63 fails. Spurred by the initiative, the Legislature passed a broad package of nearly a dozen gun control measures this session, half of which were signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. They included laws to regulate ammunition sales and ban high-capacity magazines.

He vetoed another requiring gun owners to report their lost and stolen firearms to law enforcement. But Proposition 63 would put all of these provisions into statute that can only be repealed by another voter-backed initiative, or amended to “further the intent of the act” by a vote of 55 percent of the Legislature.

Q: Why didn’t the Legislature just wait until after the election?

A: Apparently because of a personal and political feud between Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, Proposition 63’s proponent, and Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, who felt ownership over ammunition regulation after previously carrying unsuccessful legislation on the issue. Arguing that the initiative was “too risky,” de León tried to pressure Newsom to remove his measure from the ballot by rushing the package of gun bills through the Legislature.

When Newsom repeatedly refused to do so, de León suggested he was acting only out of “political ambition” and amended his bill to override part of Proposition 63. Newsom’s camp lashed out, calling de León a “self-serving cynic completely consumed with petty personal grudges.”

Q: So how do the ammunition regulations work?

A: Both buyers and sellers of ammunition in California face new stipulations. Beginning in 2018, any vendor that sells more than 500 rounds per month will need a license from the state, which will require them to conduct background checks on their employees and report lost or stolen ammunition to authorities within 48 hours of discovering that it is missing. After July 2019, all ammunition sales will have to take place through a licensed vendor, including the delivery of purchases made over the internet.

That does not include transfers of ammunition, where no money is exchanged, though those must still take place face-to-face. Buyers will be required to pass a background check at the point of sale. Vendors will send customers’ personal information to the state Department of Justice, which will run it through databases of firearms transactions and prohibited gun owners to ensure the buyer is eligible before approving the purchase.

Buyers will be charged a transaction fee of up to $1 for each background check to fund enforcement. Purchasing ammunition for others who are not eligible to buy it will be considered a misdemeanor.

Q: That seems like a big deal. Are any of the other changes so significant?

A: Perhaps the provision to notify police within five days if a gun has been lost or stolen, which proponents argue discourages illegal trafficking. Brown vetoed a similar bill three times. Proposition 63 would make the failure to report an infraction the first two times, with fines up to $1,000.

After that, it would be a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. False reporting would also carry penalties. And the new ban on high-capacity magazines will require Californians to sell theirs to a gun dealer, turn them in to law enforcement or remove them from the state by next July. Other changes are more technical.

Q: What about the confiscation process?

A: It is illegal to posses a firearm in California if you have been convicted of a felony or domestic abuse, or if you have been deemed a danger to yourself or others. The state has a program to remove guns from those prohibited from owning them, but its slow progress in reducing a large backlog has been a frequent point of contention.

Proposition 63 would put the onus on defendants to relinquish their weapons and provide proof to the court within 14 days of their conviction. If no proof is provided, courts would be empowered to issue a search warrant for the guns.

Q: So who is behind this initiative?

A: Besides Barbra Streisand? Proposition 63 is the work of Newsom – in collaboration with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence – who has a full political slate this fall as he ramps up his 2018 gubernatorial campaign. They jointly unveiled the proposal, a collection of ideas to reduce gun violence that had previously stalled in the Legislature, in San Francisco last October.

The measure has since picked up support from the California Democratic Party and sitting U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as more than $5 million from donors like former Facebook President Sean Parker and real estate mogul Nicholas Pritzker.

Q: I haven’t been hearing much about Proposition 63. Shouldn’t it be more controversial?

A: It certainly is in some circles. As with all new regulations California has pursued in recent years, firearms groups are highly critical of restrictions they say will infringe on the rights of lawful gun owners without doing anything to reduce the number of shootings.

But, despite a couple of social media scuffles with Newsom, the opposition campaign simply doesn’t have the resources to go toe-to-toe with proponents – just about $713,000 in contributions so far. And though fundraising pitches from Newsom frame the initiative as a rebuke to the influential National Rifle Association, the organization has given less than $100,000 to the opposition campaign.

Even if the initiative is defeated, California would still ban high-capacity magazines beginning next year. It would begin to regulate ammunition sales in 2018, and require background checks for ammunition purchases starting in 2019.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff

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