Dan Morain

Almighty NRA is all but paper tiger in California

In Washington, Rep. John Lewis was leading Democrats in a sit-in to force the Republican-controlled House to vote on modest gun control measures, while Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer was telling a gun control rally on the west steps of the California Capitol that the Second Amendment should be amended.

“Do not be afraid of the Second Amendment,” Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat, told the gathering of Everytown for Gun Safety. “The Second Amendment is not Bible verse.”

In Washington, where the National Rifle Association holds sway, House Speaker Paul Ryan refuses to hold votes on the basics, like denying guns to people who are on the no-fly list. In Sacramento, where the NRA has become a paper tiger, legislators will vote on no fewer than 14 gun control bills starting Monday.

The NRA’s Sacramento lobbyist, who divides his time among several states, probably will show up and work the Capitol halls, ineffectually, and Republican legislators will speechify against measures, to deaf ears. Democrats will invoke the massacres in Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino and Newtown, Conn., and vote in unison for most if not all of the measures.

Two bills would prevent people who cannot legally own guns from buying ammunition. Others would impose penalties for failing to report stolen firearms, restrict gun owners from loaning their weapons and make it easier for individuals who feel threatened to obtain restraining orders against gun owners. Another would ban possession of large-capacity magazines. The state long ago banned the sale and manufacture of such magazines.

If all that weren’t enough, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom announced via Twitter at week’s end that his bullet control initiative had qualified for the November ballot: “Big news- CA will take on the NRA + vote to end gun violence. ... Safety for All qualified for CA Nov. Ballot!”

Newsom and Democratic legislators can safely play to their base by attacking the National Rifle Association. Certainly, the organization’s arrogant leaders are fat targets. But while they control politics in much of the country, the NRA is firing blanks in California, as is evident by following the gunners’ money.

As of May 31, the National Rifle Association’s political action committee had $14.7 million in the bank for use in federal campaigns. In 2014, the NRA spent $20.8 million on federal elections, up from $16.1 million in 2012, the Center for Responsive Politics reports.

In 2000, the organization spent $320,000 on California state races. No more. The NRA hasn’t given a direct donation to a legislative candidate since 2014, and then it gave a mere $11,000, split among nine candidates, all of them Republicans. One, Assemblywoman Ling-Ling Chang of Los Angeles County, returned $1,000 last year.

Ray Haynes, a Republican who served in the California Legislature from 1992 until 2006, regularly carried bills advocated by the NRA, and recalls the NRA was a source of campaign volunteers and donations.

“It’s not being overly dramatic to say it looks like they’ve given up,” Haynes said.

It makes sense. In 2014, the NRA spent $1.26 million to unseat legislators in Colorado who voted to restrict guns after the Aurora massacre, the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics reports. In California, $1 million might not flip a single Assembly seat. Here, the Legislature will remain in Democratic hands for years to come.

“There is frustration, but there is resolve,” said Stephen Helsley, who lobbied for the NRA in the 1990s when it had clout. “There is no sense that we’re going to abandon the state.”

Perhaps. The NRA is going through the motions of sending questionnaires to legislative candidates seeking to determine their positions on gun-related issues. This year’s version runs five pages, single spaced. Much of it reads like a litany of losses by the NRA in Sacramento.

It asks whether candidates would vote to ban assault weapons. The Legislature did that in 1989. It asks if they’d vote for legislation to require registration of rifle and shotgun purchases. That is in place, too.

It also asks whether they would vote to restrict the laws allowing sheriffs to issue concealed weapons permits. That’s coming.

Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, is taking aim at Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones over his policy of readily handing out concealed carry permits, introducing bills that would raise the cost of obtaining concealed carry permits and make it tougher to obtain permits.

For Democrats in California, there is little downside to pushing such measures. Newsom’s polling shows his initiative would help Democrats, and the survey was taken in January, before Omar Mateen slaughtered 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It remains to be determined whether the NRA will spend significant money to oppose Newsom’s measure. California is so far from the rest of the country.

Jones-Sawyer recognizes that his idea about changing the Second Amendment is quixotic, although he does believe it would make the streets of his tough district safer. The 100 or so people who attended the rally last week didn’t cheer wildly at his suggestion. But no one jeered either, not in California, where legislators fight to carry gun control legislation, and the NRA is an afterthought.