Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Like many before him, Newsom steps into gun debate

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is raising money for a ballot initiative to strengthen gun control in California.
Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom is raising money for a ballot initiative to strengthen gun control in California. Associated Press file

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom blasted out an email seeking contributions, moments after announcing his plan to place a “historic” gun control initiative on the 2016 ballot.

“Join our movement to stop gun violence in California by clicking here and adding your name – make your voice heard, and we will make change,” says the email, which was sent from his 2018 gubernatorial campaign account committee.

Gun violence is a terrible thing. Stricter gun control is imperative. If only Congress would act. Given most voters’ anger and fatigue over mass shootings, Newsom, the one declared candidate for governor, has grabbed hold of an issue that likely will resonate in 2016 and beyond. He also is stepping into territory that is well-trod in California.

This state’s politicians have been approving gun control bills for decades: background checks for all gun buyers, and bans on assault weapons and the sale of large-capacity magazines.

Lawmakers long ago all but restricted cheap handguns, and they’ve denied guns to people who abuse alcohol or have a history of domestic violence. This year, they banned guns on college campuses. The list goes on.

“No question, in many ways, California is the envy to the rest of the nation. That doesn’t mean we can’t do better,” Newsom told me.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence assesses our gun control laws like this: “California has enacted the strongest firearm laws in the nation and consistently ranks #1 on the Brady Campaign’s annual state scorecard.”

In the tough grading system imposed by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, California is one of six states that receives an A-minus. The center, which is helping Newsom write the initiative, presumably would give the state a solid A if voters approve the measure.

Then there is Guns & Ammo, which ranks California as 46th worst for gun owners: “While many states have backed away from efforts to restrict the rights of their gun owners, California is moving full steam ahead.”

Newsom hasn’t submitted the wording of his initiative. But based on his statements and fundraising pitch, he is offering five ideas. Each is familiar. His donors will have to ask themselves whether the provisions would be worth the millions a campaign would cost.

One would require the state Department of Justice to share with the FBI information about felons and others who are prohibited from owning firearms. The state already does this, though Newsom says his measure would mandate it.

Another would tighten procedures to ensure that people who are prohibited from owning guns relinquish their firearms. California already has an only-in-California program by which agents visit the homes of mentally infirm people, felons and domestic abusers and take their guns.

There’d be a ban on possession of magazines that hold more than 10 bullets, though, again, the state prohibits their sale and importation. Gun owners would be required to report lost or stolen guns to law enforcement. That makes sense, though Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation to require the reporting.

Probably the biggest gap in California law involves bullets. Newsom’s initiative would require ammunition buyers to undergo background checks and sellers to be licensed – a good idea, as others have concluded.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill in 2010 by Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León regulating bullet sales, though the National Rifle Association has tied it up in court.

De León tried fixing it with another bill, but Brown vetoed it, flippantly saying: “Let’s keep our powder dry on amendments until the court case runs its course.” A similar de León bill stalled last year in the Assembly.

Then there are provisions not mentioned. Last year, Newsom supported Proposition 47, which reduced penalties for what he described as nonviolent, low-level crimes. As a result, theft of property worth less than $950 is a misdemeanor. That includes many handguns.

Here’s a suggestion for Newsom. Fix the Proposition 47 flaw by clearly stating that theft of a firearm, even one worth less than $950, is a serious crime for which you could be imprisoned. At a minimum, someone who steals or possesses a stolen gun should lose the right to own a firearm.

Newsom has an eye for emerging issues, something he proved when as the newly elected mayor of San Francisco in 2004, he started officiating same-sex marriages, a step that ultimately led to the landmark Supreme Court decision recognizing marriage equality.

In his fundraising pitch last week, Newsom called his Safety for All initiative “historic.” Newsom has been on the right side of history before. But as any student of politics knows, there are no new issues, merely politicians who seek new ways to use them to attain higher office.