Placeholder Image

Gun Policy

Why California Is an Incubator for Tighter Gun Regulations

Los Angeles, following in the footsteps of neighboring cities, is on the verge of passing the second of two new gun safety measures.

After a summer that has seen a rash of mass shootings, from South Carolina to Tennessee, it is California, a state that has avoided high-profile tragedy over the last few months, that has sprung into action to curb gun violence. The Los Angeles City Council passed a ban on high-capacity firearm magazines — those that hold more than 10 rounds — on July 28, and will soon vote on a new “safe gun storage” ordinance. The bill would mandate new procedures for how guns must be kept in Los Angeles homes, with the aim of keeping them out of the hands of children, unstable family members, and thieves.

“In the wake of the recent Chattanooga tragedy and far too many horrific school shootings, it’s time for government at all levels to step up and do what’s necessary to prevent gun violence,” said Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who sponsored the bills, in a statement provided to The Trace. “I believe that passing them in America’s second largest city will prevent needless deaths locally and send an unmistakable message to congressional leaders.”

California has long been proactive — or, perhaps more accurately, swiftly reactive — in its responses to headline-generating acts of gun violence. “Our Sandy Hook event, if you will, was the Stockton School Yard shooting in 1989,” says Amanda Wilcox, legislation and policy chair for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence’s California chapters. The shooting, which left five dead at an elementary school, spurred a host of legislative activity, according to Wilcox. Today, the state has universal background checks for all gun purchases (including those at gun shows), a 10-day waiting period for purchases, and an assault weapons ban.

The Golden State has a great deal of leeway to pursue stricter policies, in part because gun-rights organizations like the NRA struggle to project power on the West Coast. Democratic majorities dominate legislatures at the state and local levels, and even California-based gun-rights advocacy groups have difficulty passing legislation. “In California, [gun rights groups] aren’t able to move their own bills,” says Wilcox. Meanwhile, the state is home to a number of large urban centers, which generally favor tighter gun restrictions. “It’s demographics,” says Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California Los Angeles. “There’s political leanings, concerns about crime in urban areas, and issues related to very high support for gun control among minority communities.”

That’s not to say there aren’t obstacles. In 2013, a bill that would have instituted a statewide ban on high-capacity magazines failed in the state legislature. That same year, the cities of Sunnyvale and San Francisco each passed similar high-capacity magazine bans to the one passed last month in Los Angeles. Both were almost immediately challenged in court by a group of gun owners backed by the NRA and represented by that group’s lawyer in California, C.D. “Chuck” Michel. Both were upheld by district courts, however, and the U.S. Supreme Court voted not to take up the Sunnyvale case in a de facto preservation of both California decisions. (The NRA did not return a request for comment.)

Michel, the NRA’s West Coast counsel, also opposed L.A.’s high-capacity magazine ban, contending in a statement provided to The Trace that it “will have little impact on violent crime, other than to impede the constitutional right of self-defense,” but most of that initiative’s opposition has actually come from law enforcement unions. The bill was first introduced to the L.A. City Council’s Public Safety Committee around two years ago, but sat there until last month. “We believe that Councilman Mitch Englander, who is the chair of the Public Safety Committee, was trying to postpone a vote on that ban,” says Margot Bennett, executive director of the L.A.-based group Women Against Gun Violence (WAGV). “The police were against it. The retired police officers and their union were putting up a very big fight, and wanted an exemption.”

Englander, an LAPD reserve officer, would eventually propose the exemption — which would allow retired law enforcement officers to possess high-capacity magazines — when the bill was finally allowed back onto the council floor. (Active duty officers were already exempt.) The proposal ultimately failed, thanks in part to maneuvering by gun safety groups like WAGV, and it was spun off into a separate amendment that has yet to be taken up in the chamber. (Englander was not available for comment.)

“No exemptions,” says Bennett. “This is for public safety in the same way that seat belts are a public safety issue. If you’re Mario Andretti, you still have to wear your seatbelt when you go to the market.”

Bennett and her organization have also been on the front lines of L.A.’s battle over stricter safe-storage laws. The proposed law mandates that a gun be either locked away or on the owner’s person in their home. Safe-storage laws normally face a large degree of legal scrutiny. The Supreme Court rejected a challenge to San Francisco’s safe-storage law this year, despite striking down a similar provision in Washington, D.C., in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller. “Any law that requires someone to store a firearm in a way that makes it difficult to use for self-defense will be challenged,” says Winkler. “Yet the courts have by and large upheld the vast majority of gun control laws that have been adjudicated.”

Michel was vocal in his criticism when San Francisco’s safe-storage law was upheld, and his reaction to L.A.’s proposed ordinance was no different: “Firearm owners should store their firearms responsibly, safe from children and other unauthorized users,” he said in a statement. “How this is accomplished however, should be a personal decision based upon the specific needs of the firearm owner — single women who live alone in high-crime areas, and who may require prompt access to a firearm for self-defense, do not have the same storage needs as families in gated communities.”

The particulars of a law’s language are crucial when they are challenged, but also when they’re implemented. The night before the Public Safety Committee was to send L.A.’s safe storage act to the City Council for a vote, the WAGV insisted the bill be altered to say owners must be “in control” of their weapons if they were not locked away or physically on their person. The language, which appears in Sunnyvale and San Francisco’s safe storage laws, is designed to make owners accountable if they fall asleep with their gun unattended. According to Bennett, the L.A. bill heading to the City Council said the weapon merely needed to be nearby, instead of on the owner’s person, a clause that WAGV and other gun safety groups believed made the law toothless. Those groups collectively dropped their support for the altered version, let enough council members know why, and got the “in control” clause reinserted. It remains in the bill’s final version, which is expected to pass this week.

On a macro level, some feel that pushing for gun safety measures in municipalities, rather than face uphill challenges at the state or federal level, may be the best way forward. “Cities are getting more and more active,” says Winkler.

Update: An earlier version of this story misidentified California as the Sunshine State. It is the Golden State. 

[Photo: Flickr user Neil Kremer]