In this April 20, 2015, file photo, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Californians for Safety and Justice conference in Sacramento, Calif.
Photo by Rich Pedroncelli/File/AP

California gubernatorial candidate introduces gun safety ballot initiative


In an effort to circumvent the national gun lobby’s reach and “go directly to the public,” California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who is running for governor of the Golden State – on Thursday announced a sweeping proposal for next year’s ballot that could potentially set a gold standard for enacting gun control.

“If we continue to fight the National Rifle Association on their home court, which is the legislative front, I think we’ll continue to be frustrated,” the rising Democratic star said in a phone interview with MSNBC Thursday. “But when you have an ability to go directly to the public, that’s a completely different field of engagement, and I think the NRA is not adept at that kind of engagement. They are significantly hindered because public opinion is not with them.”

“If we continue to fight the National Rifle Association on their home court, which is the legislative front, I think we’ll continue to be frustrated.”
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom
The ballot initiative, if adopted, would make California the first state in the nation to implement background checks for ammunition sales, requiring someone buying bullets to undergo the same level of scrutiny as someone buying a gun. It would also require gun owners to get rid of their large-capacity magazines – the manufacture and sale (but not the possession) of which are already prohibited under California law – as well as report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement.

Many of the initiative’s provisions were recently proposed by California lawmakers, but either failed to pass the Democratic-controlled legislature, or were vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat.

“A mistake that a lot of us have made, related to those who advocate for gun safety legislation, is that we try to process it through our legislative bodies, and that’s where the NRA’s strength lies,” Newsom said. “There’s been a gap between perception and reality, the perception being that California is on the cutting edge of gun safety legislation when, in fact, there are a number of areas where we have fallen behind.”

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Newsom’s proposal, which he formally unveiled Thursday at the site of a 1993 mass shooting in San Francisco, comes in the wake of several high-profile killings by gunfire, two of which took place in the Golden State. In 2014, a 22-year-old gunman went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, killing six people before taking his own life. And over the summer, a San Francisco woman named Kathryn Steinle was shot and killed with a gun that was found to have been stolen from a federal agent.

Police have charged an undocumented immigrant with Steinle’s murder, prompting GOP lawmakers to seize on the case as evidence of the need for tougher immigration laws. Next week, the Senate is scheduled to vote on “Kate’s Law,” a measure named after Steinle that would impose a mandatory-minimum five-year prison sentence for any undocumented immigrant who reenters the U.S. after being deported.

But while Newsom believes Steinle’s death illustrates the need for comprehensive immigration reform, he also feels the conversation needs to be about guns.

“At the end of the day, there’s not a day that goes by without a mass shooting,” Newsom said, referring to data compiled by the Mass Shooting Tracker. “I’m a parent. The embers of this whole effort come from my own frustration and, frankly, my own accountability.”

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Newsom’s proposal also comes at a time that many gun control advocates believe to be a tipping point for nationwide reform. The issue featured prominently in this week’s Democratic presidential debate, with front-runner Hillary Clinton going after her primary rival, Bernie Sanders, for not being tough enough on guns. Additionally, in the past two years, six states have closed loopholes that allowed for gun purchases without background checks — bringing to 18 the total number of states that now require background checks for some or all private firearm sales.

Two more states, Nevada and Maine, look poised to follow.

“I would like to believe that we’re getting closer to that tipping point,” Newsom said. “I’m more optimistic now because it’s a bottom-up approach. These reforms are not going to emanate out of a Congress that is made up of intimidated politicians. But it’s much harder to intimidate the public than it is to intimidate a politician.”

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California already has some of the nation’s toughest gun restrictions, including a 1999 ban on assault weapons, like the AK-47. The same law also bans the importation, manufacture and sale of ammunition magazines with 11 rounds or more. But the ballot initiative goes considerably further, requiring owners of large-capacity magazines to sell them to a licensed firearms dealer, take them out of state, or turn them over to law enforcement for destruction. It would also set up a process for felons to relinquish their weapons, and require the California Department of Justice to report to the federal instant criminal background check 

According to a poll conducted last month by the Public Policy Institute of California, 65% of adults said that laws covering the sale of guns should be stricter.

“I’m a parent. The embers of this whole effort come from my own frustration and, frankly, my own accountability.”
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom
The measure needs 365,000 signatures to qualify for next year’s ballot – the means by which many of California’s most impactful proposals are adopted. High-profile ballot initiatives also play an important role in the state’s elections, with candidates’ seeking to capitalize on the visibility their measures often bring. Newsom, who could also be heavily involved in the initiative to legalize marijuana, launched a fundraising committee earlier this year to run for governor in 2018.

Whatever the political motivations behind Newsom’s gun safety proposal, however, they appear to be secondary to his moral ones. Throughout the interview, he repeatedly referred to emotional remarks that President Obama delivered two weeks ago, after a lone gunman shot and killed nine people at a community college in Oregon. “We collectively are answerable to those families,” Obama told a roomful of reporters in the White House briefing room.

Echoing that sentiment, Newsom said: “I can’t be part of the problem anymore.”

California, Gun Policy, Gun Violence and NRA

California gubernatorial candidate introduces gun safety ballot initiative