Supporters of the latest spate of gun-control bills that will soon make their way to the governor's desk insist they only are trying to close "loopholes" and that they won't deprive Californians of their right to bear arms.
But to peer at the future of gun ownership in California, one might look at policies the state is undertaking now. "In California, officials are ramping up a unique program that identifies and seizes guns from people who are prohibited from keeping them," according to a recent National Public Radio story.
The piece detailed the California's Department of Justice's APPs (Armed and Prohibited Persons) program that sends armed agents to the doors of Californians "who at one time purchased firearms legally, but have since run afoul of the law." It's a first-in-the-nation program by which state officials cross-reference government crime databases. An agent might show up at the door of a person who legally purchased a gun, but was later deemed mentally ill or was convicted of domestic violence.
The Legislature is making this program even more muscular. A newly signed law, passed with bipartisan support, provided additional resources for APPs. A widely supported bill would require gun owners to secure their firearms if they live with someone on the banned list.
Most people are happy to see guns kept out of the hands of dangerous felons, but Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, says the list is so poorly maintained that many people on the list shouldn't be on it and that only a third of the people on the list are convicted felons. Gun owners fear that eventually the Department of Justice could use registration lists to raid the homes of law-abiding owners of recently banned weapons.
Looking at the myriad gun bills, it's clear that the Legislature is doing more than chipping away at gun ownership. "It's the most all-encompassing gun grab that's happened in California since 1982," when Prop. 15 was on the ballot to freeze handgun purchases, Paredes said. Active bills would add types of semi-automatic weapons to the list of banned weapons, require background checks for ammunition purchases, add certification requirements for purchases of rifles and shotguns, and expand the list of offenses that bar the legal ownership of firearms. Democrats are pushing an aggressive package they call the LIFE Act.
Another controversial bill would halt the use of lead ammunition by 2019, mainly for environmental reasons. Assemblyman Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, said the bill could ban hunting given that non-lead ammo runs afoul of federal laws banning armor-piercing bullets. An amendment seems to have fixed that problem, but there's no question it adds burdens and costs.
Although moderate Democrats from places such as the Central Valley often support gun rights, the leadership's policy appears to be death by 1,000 cuts. "They never get enough," said Chuck Michel, a Long Beach attorney who represents gun-rights groups. "California is the living slippery slope."
Gun-rights activists have been calling legislators, but they must ultimately rely on Gov. Jerry Brown, which is not an enviable position. And even if he uses the veto pen, it's only a matter of time before more bills move forward. The gun-control movement views California as the petri dish for the nation. A February article in lefty Mother Jones argues that "the new laws might do for guns what California's pollution and fuel economy rules did for the nation's automobiles."
Dave Kopel, a scholar at the conservative Independence Institute in Colorado, sees hope in the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment. That's the post-Civil War amendment that applies the Bill of Rights to states — even, he said, "when those rights were violated by extremists and bigots who took control of [Southern] legislatures." But the courts haven't rushed in to save Californians from their own legislators, which explains growing pessimism among pro-gun activists.
The situation reminds me of The Offspring song, "The Future Is Now," which asked: "Now who's knock, knocking at your door?" If the slope keeps slipping, the person knocking could soon be an agent from the California Department of Justice, seeking your recently banned weapon.