How California got tough on guns

The gun law debate returned to California when eight people were shot and killed in a San José railroad depot this week
Pistol and bullets laying on table. Photo Credit: iStrfry Marcus / Unsplash

Ben Christopher

The modern American gun debate began on May 2, 1967, when 30 protesting members of the Black Panther Party marched into the California Capitol with loaded handguns, shotguns and rifles.

As photos of gun-toting radicals from Oakland hit front pages across the country, many Americans were shocked to see who was embracing the Second Amendment. In California, as in most states at the time, 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. (Yes, that 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.

The battle continues. Gov. Gavin Newsom denounced “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 for gun laws in California.”

And after a long hiatus during the pandemic, back-to-back mass shootings in Georgia and Colorado offered a stark reminder of what “normal” looks like and reignited a new round of a very old national debate.

On May 26, 2021, the debate returned to California when eight people were shot dead at a San José rail yard. “What the hell is going on in the United States of America? What the hell is wrong with us?” Newsom said at a press conference that afternoon.

“Time to move past the stale rhetoric of thoughts & prayers & pass commonsense gun laws NATIONWIDE,” the governor tweeted.

In California, the political fight is playing out through the legal system. A 2016 ballot measure championed by Newsom required background checks to purchase ammunition.

That and another provision of the measure, banning high-capacity magazines have both stalled after a federal district court judge declared them unconstitutional. Both rulings are being appealed.

So while the governor and the Democratic Legislature try to add new restrictions, gun advocates are going to court to overturn existing ones.

Time will tell what changes come in the near future for gun legislation.

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