Capitol Alert

Trump restored gun access for some accused criminals. California wants to take it away

Should someone with an outstanding arrest warrant face the same restrictions on owning a firearm as those convicted of a crime? Federal officials have disagreed for more than two decades over how strictly to interpret a gun control law for so-called “fugitives from justice.”

But four months after the Trump administration loosened the provision so that it applies only to people who have fled the state where their warrant was issued, California Democrats acted swiftly this week to create a replacement policy through the state budget.

The move infuriated gun rights groups and legislative Republicans, who lambasted their colleagues Thursday during floor debate over Assembly Bill 103, a public safety budget measure that contains the firearm regulation. The bill overwhelmingly passed both houses of the Legislature along largely partisan lines and now awaits approval from Gov. Jerry Brown.

Under the new law, Californians with outstanding warrants for felonies or certain serious misdemeanors will be banned from “owning, purchasing, receiving, or possessing a firearm.” The prohibition already exists for anyone convicted of a felony or within 10 years of a conviction for those misdemeanors, which include threatening a public official, intimidating a witness, selling a gun to a minor or bringing a gun onto public school grounds.

Opponents criticized the policy for punishing the accused before their day in court. They also denounced Democrats for amending it into a budget-related bill late last week, circumventing a hearing process where they could have raised concerns over how the ban will be carried out: Must a person knowingly have a warrant to be prosecuted? Will they receive a notification to give up possession of their guns? Do they have time to get rid of their firearms before they become guilty?

“You are talking about stripping someone’s constitutional rights,” Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, R-Lake Elsinore, said. “Since when are you guilty before you’ve even been convicted in this state?”

The heated debate generated little response from Democrats. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, said the bill would simply bring California back to “where we were in January of this year,” before the Trump administration issued its new guidance on how to define “fugitives from justice.”

While that rule took effect after Congress passed the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993, it has since been a matter of dispute between the FBI, which runs the federal background check system for gun purchases, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which enforces federal gun laws.

The FBI took a broader definition, blocking more than 176,000 gun purchases since November 1998 by people with outstanding arrest warrants. But under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice has now sided with the ATF’s long-standing arguments that only those who have fled their state should qualify as fugitives. That change removed half a million names from a federal database of prohibited gun purchasers.

The National Rifle Association notified its members this week about AB 103 and urged them to mobilize against “substantial policy changes that would remove your Second Amendment rights without due process.” A spokeswoman for the organization could not immediately say whether it is planning further challenges to the bill, which Brown is expected to sign into law in the coming weeks.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff