California Is Tired of Waiting for Gun Control, So We Made Our Own

California Governor Jerry Brown signed a sweeping package of six tough new gun bills into law last week.
Publish date:
July 5, 2016
politics, gun control, California

If you're tired of hearing about gun control, I don't blame you. Maybe we could stop talking about it if Congress could separate its lips from the NRA's teat long enough to do its job, but in the meantime, this is becoming a state by state issue. California, which already has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, just got even tougher with a new package of bills that will go into effect next year.

While not as blue as many people think it is, California is still blue enough to push through a broad spectrum of gun control legislation that heavily regulates the kind of weapons people can own, who can own them, and how they're used. The state's legislation includes measures like a Gun Violence Restraining Order, which allows law enforcement to confiscate weapons from people who are a threat to themselves or others — like, say, the abusive partners who commit the vast majority of this country's mass shootings.

The Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gives California an A- rating, something it accords to few other states (this is also currently the highest rating). Yet, California is the state where Elliot Rodger murdered six people in a misogynistic rampage in 2014, and where two perpetrators killed 14 people and wounded 22 others in San Bernardino at a company holiday party in 2015. Ever since the San Bernardino shooting, Californians have been clamoring for better gun control, and this only escalated after Orlando.

So the legislature passed 11 separate gun control bills, and Governor Brown opted to veto five of them, a reminder of the fact that he's not 100 percent pro-gun control. The laws that got through, though, are a definite start.

Among other things, the laws require background checks for guns loaned to non-family members (targeting "straw purchasing," in which people buy weapons on behalf of other people). They also outlaw so-called "bullet buttons," which were developed by gun makers to get around a detachable magazine law, and people with magazines that contain more than 10 rounds will need to surrender them. Another law requires background checks for ammunition purchases.

What do these laws really mean for California? They certainly mean that the state's gun control framework will be tighter, which may help to prevent some crimes, but the problem with leaving issues like these to the states rather than legislating them on a federal level is that Californians can simply look across the border to somewhere that favors a looser legal approach to guns.

Like border states Arizona and Nevada, both of which have F ratings on their gun policy, and Oregon, which gets a C. All it takes is a casual jaunt across the border to bring home a trunk full of goodies, something that gun stores in those states already exploit by catering to California residents. Regardless as to the laws in California surrounding gun registration, people own unregistered weapons, and many of those are also illegal.

California is also contending with a flood of "ghost guns," manufactured at private homes and in small workshops with readily-available components. While making guns for personal use isn't entirely unusual, the practice of making them to sell is on the rise, and that has officials worried. The kind of people who make ghost guns likely aren't complying with legal restrictions on firearms, nor are they running background checks on their buyers.

Legal crackdowns like this package of laws play an important role, but they also tend to put pressure on the black market, which responds in kind by moving more product. That in turn puts law enforcement in a bind, as it needs to step up investigations and busts, and doesn't always have the budget to do so.

"Gun rights" advocates are already proudly proclaiming that they'll fight the laws. In addition to taking them to court, which was probably inevitable, they say they also won't comply with legal mandates. They've been skirting the law with cleverly modified "California legal" guns all along, and now they're abandoning even that pretense, feeding on the increasingly toxic gun culture in America, a country where people insist that the government is coming for their guns.

There's a larger conversation to be had here as people scream blue murder about gun control. The dueling interpretations of the Second Amendment are often a bit oversimplified — no individual right to buy guns versus an individual right to own whatever you want — and there's actually a lot of nuance in the Constitution and what the Founders meant by it.

It bears noting that the Founders were a bunch of monied, propertied, racist, elitist white guys, and it may not necessarily be a good idea to hew determinedly to what we think their agenda was. The Second Amendment was written within a larger framework of gun control — yes, even at the time, there were limitations on weapons ownership. For example, members of the Black community, whether freed or enslaved, could not own guns, and whites who weren't "loyal to the Revolution" couldn't either.

Those who were eligible to own guns (white, monied men) actually had to own them — for the purpose of participating in their well-regulated militias, that is, because this was an era where the United States didn't have much to speak of in the way of organized law enforcement. Militia members had to handle protection for their communities in a vast new country where the official military couldn't be everywhere at all times and other Western powers were nipping at their heels.

They also had a lot of Native Americans to contend with, and Native Americans were quite understandably not happy about Europeans settling on stolen land, and sometimes made that abundantly clear. The Founders wanted men who looked and thought like them to have guns in order to defend their country against people who didn't look or think like they did.

But then another pressing issue arose: Fugitive slaves. Restrictions on gun ownership were relaxed in the face of a desire to have armed slave patrols. Yes, gun rights in the United States were built on the backs of slaves, and defenders of the individual mandate are reinforcing the same attitudes that led white people to chase down desperate Black people, whom they viewed as property. If they could capture them for reward money, they would, but if they couldn't, they'd shoot them.

When people talk about the imperative of individual rights, they're talking about this in the context of a country that believed it was both ethical and necessary to own other human beings, to slaughter Native Americans. And they're also talking about it in the context of a gun culture hundreds of years old, in which you could only fire one round at a time and then had to stop to painstakingly load and pack your gun. The Founders couldn't even conceive of weapons capable of firing thousands of rounds per minute at extremely high accuracy. A skilled shooter in good conditions could load a musket in 20 seconds, at an absolute minimum. There's simply no comparison.

As a highly populous state with a usually progressive legislature, California often sets the tone on laws surrounding social issues. The state's ability to do what the feds will not could be a signal to others to follow suit — but something tells me that the feds will continue to ignore calls from their constituents for a better framework of gun laws in the United States.

Photo: Neon Tommy/Creative Commons