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Taking aim at the gun industry

In the hopes of reducing firearm violence, California continues to try to address gaps in the nation's porous gun laws by introducing its own legislation.

February 16, 2013|Michael Hiltzik
  • California's firearms-related deaths per 100,000 people have consistently fallen as regulations have increased. Above, a gun show in Ontario last month.
California's firearms-related deaths per 100,000 people have consistently… (Christina House, For The…)

We've all heard the saw about California being hostile to industry. Here's an industry that indisputably has grounds for complaint: the gun industry.

Finally, the Legislature is getting something right.

According to many experts, California's firearms regulations are the toughest in the nation. (New York's recently enacted rules may be tougher, but they're still being rolled out.) California may soon get even tougher: a slate of proposals outlined this month by legislative leaders in Sacramento would add new regulations and close a few loopholes in the old.

"There's a lot for folks here to be proud of," Ben Van Houten, managing attorney at the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told me. "But there's still a lot of work to do. Federal law is astonishingly weak, so it's incumbent on the states to do as much as they can."

Taken together, the state's firearms laws are a model for regulating sales and possession of a dangerous product without banning it entirely — or even necessarily cutting much into the commercial market. More than 600,000 handguns, rifles and shotguns were sold in California in 2011, the latest year for which statistics are available from the attorney general's office. All required background checks, which resulted in denials of fewer than 1% of applications. California remains one of the nation's major gun markets — only Texas and Kentucky (go figure) generated more background checks last year, according to FBI figures.

This dynamic places California in a familiar position, as a bellwether on social and economic change. On issues such as auto emissions, greenhouse gases and tax policy, California has led the country across a Rubicon. Will gun safety be the next frontier?

Consider the most important statistic related to California's gun laws. In 1981, before the most stringent rules were adopted, California's rate of 16.5 firearms-related deaths per 100,000 population was 31st worst in the nation and higher than the national average; by 2000, a decade after the laws started getting tightened, the state ranked 20th, with a rate of 9.18, below the national average. In 2010, the latest year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers figures, the state ranked ninth, with a rate of only 7.9.

And this is a big, diverse state with not inconsiderable pockets of gang lawlessness and drug abuse, and sizable populations of hunters, target shooters and other gun fanciers. Many factors may have contributed to the downward trend in firearm deaths since 1990, but the numbers strongly indicate that regulation works.

California's hostility to guns is focused mainly on assault weapons, which are outlawed — all others are legal, but regulated. The assault weapons ban is being extended to the makers of these dangerous products. The state's two largest public pension funds have reviewed their holdings of those manufacturers at the urging of state Treasurer Bill Lockyer, who argues that the funds shouldn't be investing in companies that make guns that can't be legally sold in the state.

The California State Teachers' Retirement System, or CalSTRS, voted in January to sell its holdings in three gun makers — Smith & Wesson and Sturm-Ruger, which are publicly traded companies, and Freedom Group. The latter landed in the CalSTRS portfolio through its investment in Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm that owns the gun maker, which made the assault rifle used in the Newtown school massacre in December. Soon after the massacre, Cerberus said it would put Freedom up for sale.

The board of the California Public Employees' Retirement System, or CalPERS, may vote on divestment of its holdings in Smith & Wesson and Sturm-Ruger as early as this week. (CalPERS doesn't own an interest in Freedom.) Lockyer, who sits on the boards of both pension funds, acknowledged that the divestment would be "largely symbolic" — the gun investments are negligible portions of both portfolios. But he's correct that it's important to make a statement that there are investments public agencies devoted to the health and welfare of their beneficiaries shouldn't be making.

It's even more important in this case, since CalPERS and CalSTRS are the two largest state pension funds in the country.

California's history with gun regulation is instructive for the nation. This is the state where the National Rifle Assn. tested its anti-regulation tactics before taking them on the road.

That happened in 1982, when a freeze on handgun sales appeared on the November ballot as Proposition 15. Aware that passage might spread the idea of a freeze on handguns nationwide, the NRA loaded up.

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