Perhaps it's a sign of the lopsided (and strange) nature of California politics, but Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a 2018 gubernatorial candidate, had been building a slight following among some libertarians and even conservatives because of his stances on some "freedom" issues. This caught the eye of Huffington Post, which published an article last year with the snarky headline, "The Right's Strange New Hero: Gavin Newsom."
The focus of the HuffPo piece was Newsom's book, Citizenville, which took aim at "top-down bureaucratic government." That's "choking our democracy," he said, as he called for people to "look to themselves for solving problems rather than asking the government to do things for them." That represents a philosophical break from most Sacramento Democrats, who are more intent on creating new state programs and regulations.
On a more substantive level, Newsom played a lead role in the state's "Pathways Report," which plotted a course for the eventual legalization of marijuana. After interviewing him last summer, I was struck by his willingness to wrestle with tough choices and take on some powerful interest groups. Yet I sensed some reticence toward legalization, after he said he was less inclined to support legalization than before he started the Pathways effort.
That statement was apparently a precursor to his recent announcement. Newsom has proposed a new gun-control initiative that will take most of his time as we head toward the November 2016 general election. As the San Francisco Chronicle's Matier & Ross reported last week, Newsom is putting "legalizing pot on the back burner" as he spends his limited time pushing for new restrictions on guns and ammo sales.
Newsom and the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence have yet to release the language of the proposed statewide initiative, but the group has announced the basic parameters of the proposal. It would prohibit the possession of large-capacity magazines – thus forcing the owners to surrender something they had acquired legally.
As the law center explains, "The initiative requires licensing of ammunition vendors and point-of-sale background checks for ammunition purchases…California would be the first state to require ammunition background checks at the point of sale." Currently, firearms owners can purchase ammo the way they purchase any other legal product.
The initiative would also enhance the state's Armed Prohibited Persons System, which gives the state attorney general the power to go to people's homes and confiscate weapons they acquired legally, but which they no longer are legally allowed to own (after, for instance, a restraining order or conviction for a crime). Republican legislators had been chiding Attorney General Kamala Harris for not being aggressive enough in confiscating such guns – even though reports suggest the list is wildly inaccurate and leads to mistaken confiscations.
It also has a couple of mostly noncontroversial elements – requiring owners of lost or stolen handguns to report that they went missing and a process for better sharing data with the feds.
The initiative seems to be a grab bag of recent legislation that has failed to make it into law. Newsom's critics—especially gun-rights supporters—accuse him of simply taking a poll-tested position that's likely to enhance his gubernatorial fund-raising and his political profile. Lieutenant governor comes with an impressive title but little else (as long as the real governor hasn't left the state or the country for, say, a global-warming symposium).
Newsom certainly likes to embrace big, social issues and build his profile around them. He was on the cutting edge of the gay marriage debate, when he embraced the cause more than a decade ago. He seemed to be doing the same thing with marijuana legalization, but seems to have lost interest in that issue even as the public is moving in his direction.
While the gay marriage and marijuana-legalization efforts pushed the state in a freer direction, the gun-control proposals will reduce the ability of individuals to own guns and ammo—and it will mean more centralized bureaucratic control. That's a far cry from the core idea detailed in Citizenville. And it should put a damper on any thoughts that Newsom might become the best hope limited-government advocates have for the next governor.