Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Long ago, gun control was hard to do in California

Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pressed for gun control measures when he was in the California Assembly.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pressed for gun control measures when he was in the California Assembly. Associated Press file

Gov. Jerry Brown offered fatherly words of wisdom the other day: “Don’t smoke marijuana when you’re using your gun.”

Hard to argue with that, except once upon a time, people did quibble with the notion of keeping intoxicants and guns separate.

In 1997, legislation to make it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison for a person to possess a handgun while drunk died, amid opposition from cops and gun and hunting advocates.

“I was doing this stuff 20 years ago,” said the bill’s author, former Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa.

Villaraigosa, the most prominent unannounced candidate to succeed Brown in 2018, returned my call last week to talk about gun control, and seized the opportunity to take a whack at the one announced candidate, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Newsom is pushing an initiative for the 2016 ballot that would restrict firearms in a variety of ways, including requiring that dealers conduct background checks on people who buy ammunition. His logic is inescapable. If you’re a felon or have been hospitalized because of mental illness, you cannot legally own a gun. By extension, you should not be able to buy bullets.

“I’m surprised that people are responding that it is a visionary thing,” Villaraigosa said of Newsom’s proposal. “I’m not saying we don’t need a bill that covers the loopholes. But I think the Legislature can do it better.”

He’s probably right. The Democratic-controlled Legislature readily approves legislation to control firearms these days and has done so for several years. Lawmakers in 2009 voted for a bill that, like Newsom’s measure, sought to regulate ammunition sales. The National Rifle Association sued and the case is pending before the California Supreme Court.

Lawmakers will introduce more gun control measures in response to the slaughter of 14 people by Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik at a holiday potluck in San Bernardino last month. There probably will be a new effort to regulate bullet sales – the shooters had amassed thousands of rounds of ammunition – and the bill surely will pass.

Sacramento politics were very different when Villaraigosa arrived in the Assembly from Los Angeles in 1995. Republicans controlled it and blocked most gun bills. Democrats took back control in the 1996 election, but remained hesitant to tangle with pro-gun forces. I was there and paying attention to gun control legislation. Villaraigosa was in the middle of it.

“Remember what L.A. was back then: among the most violent cities in the nation. Gun violence was epidemic. It was not just a public safety issue, but a public health issue,” Villaraigosa said.

As a freshman, he introduced a measure to authorize cities and counties to tax bullets to fund trauma care and gang prevention programs. A second one would have required gun dealers to offer trigger locks.

A third sought to make it a misdemeanor for gun owners to fail to report that their weapon was stolen, one of the provisions in Newsom’s gun initiative. None of the three reached the Assembly floor.

Then there was a bill he co-authored to make clear that dealers could not sell bullets to felons or people who had a history of mental illness, similar to Newsom’s initiative. That one died on the Assembly floor.

The reticence changed in 1999, when Villaraigosa was speaker and Gray Davis was governor. The Legislature passed the current assault weapons ban, and a far-reaching ban on the sale of cheap handguns, so-called Saturday night specials. That prompted the closure of several gun factories in the Los Angeles area.

“They got out because I made it a priority,” Villaraigosa said.

Like Brown and Villaraigosa, Newsom never would advocate mixing marijuana and firearms. But he is the most prominent politician backing a proposed initiative that would legalize marijuana, also headed for the November ballot. And there is a certain synergy among his many political endeavors.

Billionaires George Soros, Sean Parker and Peter Thiel, all marijuana legalization advocates, each donated $56,400 to Newsom’s gubernatorial campaign last year, the maximum contributors can give for the 2018 primary and general elections.

Justin Hartfield, who created an app to find marijuana stores and is backing the weed initiative, also gave Newsom $56,000. Members of the Pritzker family, whose wealth comes from the Hyatt hotel chain, gave him a combined $365,000 in 2015. Some members of the Pritzker clan are helping fund the marijuana initiative, too.

By any measure, Newsom is off to a fast start as he runs to replace Brown, who, as it happens, isn’t acting like a lame duck. Newsom had $5.5 million in the bank at the end of June, and raised another $2.67 million-plus in the final six months of 2015.

Villaraigosa is a deft politician, but he has been out of office since 2013, when his tenure as Los Angeles mayor ended. He has no open campaign account and risks being left in the dust if he waits too long to enter the contest, especially if Newsom’s gun measure gets onto the 2016 ballot.

If it gets onto the ballot, Newsom would be assured of getting lots of public attention. That’s important for a lieutenant governor, an office that has little power. His campaign aides believe polling shows the gun measure probably will be a winner.

There was a time, however, when it would not have been so popular. But that was way back when some people thought it was perfectly fine to carry a loaded firearm and get schwasted.