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California ballot measure will bypass NRA on gun control

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Californians for Safety and Justice conference in Sacramento in April on a proposed 2016 ballot initiative to strengthen the state’s gun laws.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Californians for Safety and Justice conference in Sacramento in April on a proposed 2016 ballot initiative to strengthen the state’s gun laws. The Associated Press

Year after year, Americans are horrified by the relentless gun violence in this country – and feel despair that it can’t be stopped. This resignation is a direct result of the stranglehold that the National Rifle Association has on legislators, who fear the dire political ramifications of supporting common sense gun safety measures.

It’s long past time to take the issue directly to the people. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is proposing just that, with his breakthrough proposal of a state ballot measure to advance gun safety.

Among other things, the measure would make California the first in the nation to implement point-of-sale background checks for ammunition purchases, giving them the same level of scrutiny as gun purchases. It would also require gun owners to get rid of their large-capacity magazines, and report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement.

“If we continue to fight the National Rifle Association on their home court, which is the legislative front, I think we’ll continue to be frustrated,” Newsom told MSNBC. “But when you have an ability to go directly to the public, that’s a completely different field of engagement.”

The NRA is widely acknowledged as one of the nation’s most influential advocacy groups. It has poured more than $27 million into the campaign coffers of elected officials and more than $35 million into lobbying since 1989. State and federal legislators fear ending up in the NRA’s crosshairs, most notably by being punished with a less-than-perfect grade on its annual legislative scorecard. It is no surprise there have been no meaningful gun control policies since the 1994 assault weapon ban, which was allowed to expire in 2004.

Too often, the debate over gun safety has focused on the rights of gun owners, not the rights of people to feel safe in their communities. More than 1.35 million Americans have been killed by guns since 1970, nearly as many as have died in all the wars in U.S. history.

On average, 89 people die in the United States every day from gun violence, including preschoolers, gun owners and bystanders in mass shootings. Contrary to gun industry spin, owning a gun doesn’t make a person safer. Gun owners are 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than non-gun owners.

We should be able to send our children off to school, pray in our houses of worship, and walk the streets of our neighborhoods without the fear of gun violence.

Indeed, the public overwhelmingly supports common-sense gun safety measures, including background checks for all gun sales. Even among the NRA rank and file, measures such as universal background checks and bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines attract strong support.

A successful gun control initiative in the nation’s largest state would send a clear message that elected officials should take the will of the people seriously – and would crack the armor of the NRA. Passage of California’s ballot measure would lead not only to voter initiatives in other states, but also to greater confidence and courage among policymakers to take up gun safety legislation.

Newsom’s proposals are a great start to replace frustration and resignation with hope and community empowerment.

Larry Cohen is founder and executive director of Prevention Institute, a public health nonprofit based in Oakland.

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