A Department of Justice law enforcement officer holds a handgun seized… (Wally Skalij, Los Angeles…)
SACRAMENTO — Enforce the laws already on the books. Take away the criminals' weapons, not the law-abiding citizens'. Sound familiar? It's the mantra of the gun lobby.
That is, until the government actually attempts to do it. Then the lobby changes its lyrics.
It seemed surreal listening to lobbyists for gun rights groups Monday, as if the ears were playing tricks. They testified at a state Senate Budget Committee hearing in opposition to legislation that would spend $24 million in surplus money to confiscate guns possessed by people who legally aren't supposed to have them.
They weren't opposed to the gun seizure, they said—only to the use of this particular money. It would come from the $19 fee each gun buyer pays for a background check to determine whether he's legally eligible to possess a weapon. Is he a felon? Mentally ill?
The lobbyists contended the fee is too high and should be lowered. Never mind that the gun buyer already probably is spending several hundred dollars to buy the weapon. And bullets—depending on the caliber—may go for around, say, $1 each.
They also argued the money should be used to speed up the background check and reduce the 10-day waiting period for taking possession of a gun. In other words, it's more important to rush a weapon into the hands of a purchaser than to grab one from the clutches of a violent criminal.
"They're trapped and lost in their own world, and it's not the real world," says Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), coauthor of the bill, SB 140, and chairman of the budget committee.
Let's back up.
California has a unique program—the only one in the nation—that tracks known handgun and assault weapons owners to make sure they're still legally permitted to possess a firearm. Starting next year, they'll also be doing it with buyers of all long guns.
Although the gun owner originally was a legal purchaser, he may have since been convicted of a violent misdemeanor, or been subject to a restraining order or been diagnosed with a mental illness. A little computer cross-checking produces a red flag. And a squad of armed officers can knock on the door and seize the arsenal. Roughly 11,000 weapons have been grabbed over the past six years.
But a few weeks ago, it was revealed by the state Department of Justice that roughly 19,700 Californians still illegally owned around 39,000 firearms, and there wasn't enough money to confiscate them.
So Leno and Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced the bill appropriating the money on an urgency basis, which means it will require a two-thirds majority vote in each house.
At the committee hearing, the Justice Department reported that the list of "prohibited" gun owners, as of March 1, had risen to an even 20,000 people, possessing 40,790 firearms.
"We know 40,000 guns are in the hands of people who shouldn't have them," Steinberg told the committee. "We know their addresses, we know who they are….
"We're not unmindful that money is precious. But here is $24 million. Go get those guns as fast as you can….This is about the notion that you do whatever you can with what you have."
A no-brainer, you'd think. But not for the gun lobby.
Although the number of prohibited persons possessing weapons is "inexcusable," said Kathryn Lynch, representing the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the California Assn. of Firearms Retailers, it is "inappropriate" to use background-check money to seize the guns.
"I would argue," she continued, "that this is tantamount to an attack on honest citizens."
National Rifle Assn. lobbyist Ed Worley contended that the $19 fee is too high.
Tom Pedersen, of the California Rifle and Pistol Assn., said the surplus money should be spent on upgrading the system to accelerate the checks.
Sam Peredes, lobbyist for Gun Owners of California, said that using money from "law abiding gun purchasers" to seize the guns of bad guys "is not fair and reasonable, and we believe places an undue burden on those people who are exercising their 2nd Amendment rights."
He contended the weapons confiscation should be paid for out of the state's general fund.
Guess that also means hunting-license revenue shouldn't be used to hire game wardens to track down poachers, who despoil everyone's wildlife.
Peredes lamented that the committee had blown a "historic opportunity to have both the anti-gun and the pro-gun side come together."
And in that sentence he verbalized the gun lobby's isolation from mainstream America. It's blinded by an uncompromising view that either people are "anti-gun" or "pro-gun," denying the reality that someone can support gun ownership while still seeking common-sense solutions to gun violence.
A Field Poll recently found that 61% of California voters believe it's more important to impose stiffer gun controls than to protect gun rights.
The committee ignored the gun lobby and voted for the bill 14-0 — with both Republicans and Democrats on board. Leno says he'll take it up soon on the Senate floor.
A Republican co-author, Sen. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, told me, "It's a great bill. It seems a great use of the fees. It just makes common sense."
As for the gun lobby opposition, Cannella said: "I don't understand it. They always say, 'Take guns out of the hands of the people who shouldn't have them.' "
No longer. They've reloaded with a new refrain.