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How California Got Tough On Guns

CA GUN LAWS - The modern American gun debate began in 1967, when 30 protesting members of the Black Panther Party marched into the California Capitol with loaded handguns, shotguns and rifles.

In California there were few restrictions on carrying loaded weapons in public.

That soon changed. The Panthers’ efforts to “police the police” already had led Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford to propose legislation to ban the “open carry” of loaded firearms within California cities and towns. After the Panthers showed up in the Capitol, his bill sailed through and was signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. It’s hard to say which now seems more unlikely: that two dozen revolutionaries could legally stroll into the state Assembly chamber with semi-automatic rifles, or that a Republican governor would champion stricter gun control.

In the years since, California’s progressive politicians have layered on restrictions while gun owners and manufacturers continue to try to find their way out of them. And every new mass shooting — most recently the one on April 3 that killed six people just blocks from the state Capitol — reignites the debate.

On June 4, 2021 — National Gun Violence Awareness Day — a federal judge deemed California’s ban on assault weapons a “failed experiment” and unconstitutional, although he stayed his own ruling to give the state time to appeal, which it did. And on June 21, 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the judge’s decision while other gun cases are pending. The case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court. 

A 2016 ballot measure championed by Gov. Gavin Newsom required background checks to purchase ammunition, but that and another provision of the measure, banning high-capacity magazines were both declared unconstitutional by a federal district court judge. On Nov. 30, 2021, the ruling on magazines was reversed by a federal appeals court. It was a win for the state, but potentially a short-lived one. Gun rights activists plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in. But it’s also possible that the ruling could lead to one upholding the ban on assault weapons.

The battle continues. 

This year Newsom has responded to a U.S. Supreme Court decision allowing a strict Texas abortion law to stay in place by threatening a similar California law on assault weapons and “ghost” guns. Democrats including the governor, Attorney General Rob Bonta and key legislators are now pushing legislation that would allow private lawsuits against gun makers and sellers, just as the Texas law permits them against abortion providers. 

Newsom denounces “a gun lobby willing to sacrifice the lives of our children to line their pockets.” A National Rifle Association spokesman predicts the Trump-altered Supreme Court means “winter may very well be coming

California has a reputation for being tough on guns. That reputation is well-earned.

Researchers at Boston University have counted 111 California laws that in some way restrict “the manner and space in which firearms can be used.” They include regulations on dealers and buyers, background check requirements, and possession bans directed at certain “high risk” individuals.

By their count, no other state out-regulates California when it comes to sheer quantity of rules. And we’ve held that top spot since at least 1991, the year the researchers started counting.

(Ben Christopher covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state's economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written for San Francisco magazine, California magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Priceonomics. Ben also has a past life as an aspiring beancounter: He has worked as a summer associate at the Congressional Budget Office and has a Master’s in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley. This article was featured in CalMatters.)