Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Can legislators fashion workable gun laws?

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

After a three-hour hearing Tuesday focusing on gun control, some of us might have been left to wonder what more can be done in a state that has some of the strictest gun control laws in the country.

The answer is: plenty.

Sure, some legislator-poseurs will seek quick attention. Seeing that gun control is a hot topic, lawmakers already have introduced vacuous bills that are little more than press releases.

But amid the empty concepts and retreads, there is at least a chance lawmakers will confront broader issues, chief among them the intersection between severe mental illness and violence.

"Clearly, we need early intervention, early detection," said Sen. Loni Hancock, a Berkeley Democrat who chairs the Senate Public Safety Committee through which gun-related bills must pass. "We know there are people who are hurting very badly and need help."

The hearing opened at the Capitol with a video recounting the horrible day in January 1989 when a crazed drifter with an assault rifle slaughtered five children at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, the nation's first mass shooting at a school, but sadly not the last.

California legislators reacted by banning assault weapons. More than 20 years later, gun enthusiasts still can buy knockoffs of the guns banned by that law and other laws adopted since.

The hearing ended with the testimony of Amanda Wilcox, who with her husband, Nick Wilcox, lobbies for gun control for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Chatter that is a constant in legislative hearing rooms quieted when Wilcox recounted how her daughter was shot to death by a mentally ill gunman in January 2001, and described what awaits parents of the 20 first-graders massacred at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

"They don't fully realize the loss," she said. There will, for example, be pain on holidays and at graduations and weddings. "What should be their best days will become their worst days."

In 2002, the Legislature approved Laura's Law authorizing counties, with court approval, to impose outpatient treatment on severely mentally ill people. So far, only Wilcox's own Nevada County has fully embraced the program.

In California, the left has resisted imposing treatment on severely mentally ill people, including those who are too ill to know they need help. Perhaps that will change, with support from the likes of Hancock.

"Everybody would do it if there were money," Hancock said, suggesting that the Legislature might be prepared to free up some money for counties to more aggressively treat the most mentally ill among us before they commit heinous acts. "This is a moment when we can make progress."

There is money, $1 billion a year raised by Proposition 63, the 2004 initiative. So far, however, legislators have refused to permit the money to be used to implement the law. That ought to change, finally.

Other ideas could make a difference, too: barring chronic alcohol abusers from owning guns; treating the sale of ammunition like the sale of guns by prohibiting felons from buying bullets; and licensing ammunition sellers.

Of course, California can do only so much. Gun enthusiasts can go to Nevada or Arizona, and buy weapons that can't be purchased legally here. But California lawmakers can take steps.

On Tuesday, Senate Democrats introduced legislation to allocate several million dollars to amp up a state Department of Justice effort to seize guns from people who once were legally entitled to own them, but later committed crimes or were detained because of serious mentally illness.

The department's most recent count indentified 19,784 individuals who bought more than 38,000 guns legally, and then lost the privilege of owning them. As it is, 33 state agents try to enforce what's called the Armed Prohibited Persons System program. The money would be used to hire and train more agents.

The big stuff aside, there are legislators who are elbowing aside each other to claim credit for ideas that aren't their own and suggesting bills that aren't thought through.

One measure, Alameda Democrat Rob Bonta's Assembly Bill 174, "would begin the conversation on ending the grandfathering of existing weapons which are now illegal to purchase but are still legal to possess," according to a press release.

If Bonta, a freshman, wants to force gun owners to turn in certain military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines that once were legal in California, he should push that legislation. But that'd be hard work. I guess he thinks it's better to talk about it.

You could excuse the silliness by noting the session is new. But gun control is not new in California. Legislators have approved dozens of gun control measures in the years since the Cleveland Elementary School shooting. The question for now is whether lawmakers have the will to take the time to fashion legislation that truly can make a difference.