Polls often show that large majorities of people support greater gun control and gun safety regulations. But what polls don’t show nearly as well is that intensity of belief is often just as important as sheer numbers of supporters.
In 2000, Al Gore, buoyed by polling that showed a majority in favor of greater gun regulations, ran on gun control. The Clinton administration had already implemented the Brady Bill which created a waiting period as well as adding some assault weapons measures.
In the aftermath of a narrow defeat in 2000, polling showed that gun control may have cost Al Gore the election. First, while it was true that nationally a slight majority favored gun control, in the key battleground states, gun control was a losing issue. Moreover, while the supporters of gun control primarily determined whom they voted for based on a variety of issues – the intensity of gun rights supporters pushed them to vote for a candidate often strictly or primarily on the gun issue.
The 2000 election was not an anomaly either – it is widely believed that Tom Bradley in 1982 lost the governor’s race in part because of a gun control initiative that got a number of gun rights supporters, who tend to be conservative, out to vote in a race they otherwise may not have voted in.
So it is with this backdrop that Gavin Newsom – probably himself a 2018 contender for the governor’s race – has launched an initiative drive for a new gun control measure in California.
The measure which would be on the 2016 ballot would, among other things, include a provision to require ammunition buyers to undergo background checks.
In a Facebook post earlier this week, Gavin Newsom posted, “In the last 72 hours — 68 people have been killed and 129 people have been injured due to gun violence in America.” He wrote the following day, “It makes me sick: An average of 87 Americans are killed by gun violence each and every day – we can’t let more of our neighbors, teachers, students, sons and daughters lose their lives to gun violence.”
He continued, “The NRA has repeatedly blocked responsible gun laws, but we will finally win here in California by going straight to voters like you. You can do your part by adding your name to our petition calling for responsible solutions to stop gun violence.”
The Bee reported, “Gun groups on Thursday promised a forceful response to Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed ballot initiative to cut down gun violence in California, which includes background checks for ammunition purchases and a ban on the possession of large-capacity magazines.”
The pushback has already come. Brandon Combs of the Firearms Policy Coalition said, “If Gavin Newsom wants to declare war on law-abiding gun owners and Second Amendment rights, we’re certainly going to bring the fight to him.”
The Bee notes that California already has some of the nation’s toughest gun restrictions. These include a 1999 ban on assault weapons such as the AK-47 and a ban on the importation, manufacture and sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines.
On the other hand, “several more recent planned laws in the wake of the deadly 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., faltered in the state’s Democratic-run Legislature, or have been vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat with a mixed record on firearms.”
Some posted complaints included, “Lt. Gov with all due respect, why are you trying to implement gun control on the law abiding when lawmakers refuse to punish lawbreakers with the gun laws we already have on the books?”
However, this comment does not seem well-founded. California has one of the toughest gun laws on the books. Penal Code section 12022.53 is California’s “use a gun and you’re done” law. It adds 10 years to a prison for anyone convicted of using a gun while committing a fellow. The penalty increases to 20 years if you fire the gun. And 25 to life for killing or seriously injuring another person with a gun.
The enhancement is in addition to any other penalties for the commission of a felony and consecutive to the sentence for the underlying felony.
As the Mercury News analyzed this week, “The move…suggests the incendiary issue is moving again to the center of the political debate…” But they add that “it carries risks for gun-control supporters like Newsom, who is running for governor in 2018, and also for fellow California Democrats running in swing districts in 2016, who could become vulnerable to a conservative backlash.”
The Mercury News added, “Gun control can draw single-issue voters on both sides to the polls. For example, some political analysts believe that Democrat Tom Bradley lost 1982’s gubernatorial election to Republican George Deukmejian because of his endorsement of Proposition 15, which would have imposed stricter handgun controls. The measure sparked a huge backlash and increased voter turnout in the state’s more conservative areas.”
A poll by the PPIC (Public Policy Institute of California) last month found that 65 percent of voters believe laws on gun sales should be stricter, a number that is above the national rate of 52 percent. The poll found 82 percent of Democrats favored these changes as compared to 54 percent of independents and 36 percent of Republicans.
For his part, Mr. Newsom has never been short on bravado, flaunting same-sex marriage laws in San Francisco as mayor which ultimately led to the successful passage of Proposition 8.
At his news conference on Thursday, he said bombastically, “If you’re going to do something, go big.” He added, “There’s no doubt this is emotional on all sides — for parents like myself, it’s understandably emotional.”
“The large-capacity magazine ban is going to stimulate a lot of opposition; that’s going to hit a lot of ordinary gun owners where it hurts” — including some who might be open-minded to other kinds of gun control, said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor and author of 2011’s Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
He added, “It plays into the hands of gun-rights proponents who are always warning that the government is going to come take your guns.”
The concern by some analysts is that Gavin Newsom’s initiative will incite the right and cause conservatives in California to turn out in much higher than usual numbers.
Mr. Winkler stated, “Single-issue, pro-gun voters don’t usually have a great need to turn out for the presidential election — they know which way California is going to go… (But this measure) could stimulate more turnout among people who otherwise might skip this election altogether.”
For his part, Gavin Newsom acknowledged that risk stating that “if you believe in something and think it’s the right thing to do, I think you’ve got an obligation to do it.”
Unfortunately, he is making that decision for the rest of us. The numbers we analyzed, at least in regard to mass killing, suggest that laws such as these probably won’t even have an effect on mass killings. Many mass killers had no previous record anyway – so why would a background check be effective?
It seems to me that we are treating the wrong aspect of this problem.
—David M. Greenwald reporting