Renewing his call for stricter gun laws on the third anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, used a tense federal hearing in Sacramento on Monday to advocate for broader background checks and disarming people on a federal no-fly list.
“Rather than take a position of ‘we’ll pass no laws,’ I think it’s time folks took a stand” for tighter gun laws, Thompson said at the outset of a hearing at the Capitol. “If you’re a criminal or you’re dangerously mentally ill,” he added, “I don’t think you should have a gun.”
Thompson, who chairs a House of Representatives task force on preventing gun violence, said the best remedy would be federal legislation mandating background checks for sales in venues like online stores and gun shows, where such vetting does not occur.
A bill to institute those types of checks was introduced after the 2013 massacre at the Connecticut elementary school. It collapsed in the Senate despite polls showing robust public support. Gun control advocates have excoriated that vote as a sign of the Republican majority’s unwillingness to pass meaningful limits on gun ownership.
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“Since Sandy Hook, we’ve not had a single vote in the House of Representatives as to whether we should have background checks for people who buy guns in commercial sales,” Thompson said.
While California already imposes some of the strictest gun laws in the country, Thompson and law enforcement officials said the lack of comparable national standards undercut California’s attempts to prevent dangerous people from obtaining firearms.
“Weapons acquired without universal background checks are finding their way into the hands of individuals who are prohibited from possessing them and are intent on affecting the safety of our communities,” said Capitola Police Chief Rudy Escalante, who heads firearms policy for the California Police Chiefs Association.
The idea did not sit well with opponents in the audience, including members of gun rights organizations who argued that more stringent purchasing rules do nothing to deter those who already flout the law.
“Criminals, by definition, are not law-abiding,” said Craig DeLuz of the Firearms Policy Coalition. “Terrorists, I don’t know, maybe I’m stretching here, but they’re not going to obey the law either.”
A woman who described herself as a constituent of Thompson’s interrupted him to offer an alternate idea.
“Arm the teachers, arm the people in mental health facilities, and you’ll have less deaths by firearms. Arm the citizenry,” Mary Burwell-Morrongiello, who owns a Sonoma-based construction business, interjected as Thompson described background checks.
“Come up with a different answer!” another audience member shouted at Burwell-Morrongiello as others groaned.
Also fueling acrimony was the notion of prohibiting people on the no-fly list from owning guns. A bill that would deny firearms and explosives to people on the federal government’s terrorist watch list failed in the U.S. Senate last week, and Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, has said he will author a state bill with the same aim.
Burwell-Morrongiello repeatedly rose and spoke over Thompson to protest the idea. She argued many people are on the list “arbitrarily” or by mistake.
“I beg of you not to do what so many politicians do, Mr. Thompson, and that is to try to do what’s expedient politically,” she said.
Noting the bill rejected last week would have allowed people to appeal being erroneously placed on the watch list, Thompson called it a justified safeguard.
“You’re not taking anyone’s gun rights away. What you’re doing is you’re kind of putting the brakes on,” Thompson said. “It’s better to err on the side of caution and stop someone from purchasing a gun until we’ve determined if they should be on that list or not.”