The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion California imitates the wrong Texas law when it comes to gun control

Police officers in Sacramento put down evidence markers on April 3 after a mass shooting that left six people dead. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
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Dan Morain, former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee, is the author of “Kamala’s Way: An American Life.”

Even before Sunday’s shooting that left six people dead in downtown Sacramento, Democratic legislators in California had visions of passing yet more laws to control guns, though not one that might actually help prevent such shootings.

On Sacramento’s K Street on Monday, there was the detritus of murder: torn crime tape, broken glass from a shattered jewelry store window, a memorial for a victim, Melinda Davis, a 57-year-old homeless woman who likely was waiting for the crowd to thin so she could sleep. It was all a block from the Capitol, where state lawmakers over the past few decades have approved the nation’s most far-reaching gun safety laws.

In 2022, the most eye-catching, though flawed, measure is one pushed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Always on the lookout for shiny new issues, the Democrat is seeking to limit illegal guns in California by applying the concept championed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) to effectively ban abortions.

Just as the Texas law allows private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against anyone engaged in the abortion process, Newsom’s variation would allow private citizens to sue anyone who manufactures, imports, sells or possesses for sale guns in California that are illegal under California law. That includes assault weapons, guns without serial numbers, ghost guns or their parts, and .50-caliber rifles.

The bill is almost sure to pass. This is, after all, a state where Republican opposition is scarcely a speed bump and the National Rifle Association years ago realized it was wasting campaign money and all but ceased spending on state races. On Tuesday, a California Senate committee gave initial approval to Newsom’s idea — in a party-line vote.

“Will a lot of people sue? No. But once they do, it’s going to have a chilling effect,” state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, a San Fernando Valley Democrat who is carrying the bill at Newsom’s request, told me.

Democrats acknowledge that another goal is to mock the Texas abortion law. But a California Senate Judiciary Committee analysis of the gun legislation was unamused. By mimicking the Texas law, the analysis says, California “only legitimizes it further.”

“​​These provisions undermine our justice system and the policy of the State of California,” the analysis said.

In all, California has 107 gun-control laws, more than any other state, according to the Boston University School of Public Health. The aspects of gun possession and sales they cover include background checks, safe firearms storage, limits on ammunition purchases and much more.

No law can stop criminals from getting a firearm in a nation with nearly 400 million guns. But California’s restrictions have had an impact for the good. Although firearm-related deaths in the state have been rising in recent years, mirroring a national trend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says California’s rate was seventh lowest in the nation in 2020, the most recent year for which data is available. The highest rates generally are in Southern states with the fewest gun restrictions.

Though what happened in the shooting on Sunday is far from clear, police have arrested three men. Whatever their involvement might or might not have been, the men apparently were felons in possession of firearms. That’s a crime in any state, though not much of one in California.

The state’s maximum prison sentence for that crime is three years. Some states impose similar penalties, but many allow for far longer sentences. In Texas, a felon in possession of a gun could face up to 10 years in prison.

In much of California, local prosecutors have found a workaround. Federal law allows for sentences of up to 10 years. President Donald Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, adopted a policy that, in California at least, included prosecuting felons in possession of guns caught by local cops, though federal charges are reserved for serious offenders. Merrick Garland, President Biden’s attorney general, has kept that policy in place.

When she was in the California Assembly, Catharine Baker was a rare Republican who voted for some gun-control bills. In 2016 and 2018, Baker introduced legislation to double California’s penalties for being a felon in possession of a firearm to as much as six years on the second offense.

Baker’s bills never made it past their first committees, Democratic legislators opposed the measures, citing California’s crowded prisons, the focus of a 2011 U.S. Supreme Court decision rebuking California over inhumane conditions. California has since reduced the number of inmates to 96,169 from 129,417 in 2018, and a high in the mid-2000s of more than 170,000.

“California has the strongest gun laws in the country, but they are not focusing on people who are most likely to cause harm and be a danger to others,” Baker told me.

Baker lost her seat in 2018, and the issue is dead, for now. Instead, California lawmakers appear to prefer rolling in the mud with their Texas counterparts. One day, maybe this state’s leadership will see the wisdom of longer sentences for felons who ignore the law by carrying guns and endangering the rest of us.

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