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How California Got Tough on Guns

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Photo of handguns displayed at the Smith & Wesson booth at the Shooting, Hunting and Outdoor Trade Show in Las Vegas
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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.


by Ben Christopher
CALmatters

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

How Strict Are California’s Gun Laws Compared to Other States?

California has a reputation for being tough on guns. That reputation is well-earned.
Researchers at Boston University have counted 109 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.The Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group, awarded California its only “A” grade in its 2017 state gun law scorecard.
“There are not a lot of As out there,” said Ari Freilich, the organization’s California legislative affairs director. “California has driven the conversation nationally.”
In contrast, Guns and Ammo magazine labeled California the 5th worst state for gun owners. (Washington D.C. was the top jurisdiction, followed by New York.)

California Pattern: Tragedy, Legislation, Repeat

The story of how California became, according to many, the state with the nation’s most restrictive gun laws has largely followed a familiar pattern:  alarm or tragedy, then a legislative response.

Getting Specific: What Are California’s Gun Rules?

Guns laws cover the who, what, where, when and how of buying, selling, lending, leasing, storing and firing guns. By national standards, California law is strict on just about all of these points.


CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.