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Politics & Policy

California's Burst of Common Sense on Gun Control

California's Burst of Common Sense on Gun Control

Photograph by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

One casualty of wall-to-wall coverage of Washington shutdown madness has been attention to other noteworthy events. Largely lost in the shuffle, for example, was an unexpected burst of common sense in the gun control debate. Small victories deserve celebration, so here goes:

On Oct. 11, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a package of new gun-control measures, including a curb on large-capacity ammunition magazines. At the same time, though, Brown vetoed measures that would have further restricted ordinary semiautomatic rifles that gun foes like to demonize as “assault weapons.” Brown explained his actions in an eminently sensible veto statement. “The State of California already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country, including bans on military-style assault rifles and high-capacity ammunition magazines,” Brown wrote. “I don’t believe this bill’s blanket ban on semiautomatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners’ rights.”

Specifically, the vetoed legislation would have prohibited the sort of hunting and target rifles that recreational shooters have used for generations to hunt deer and blast away at paper targets. People who think all firearms are evil may want to deny grandpa his deer rifle; Governor Brown does not. He and others who actually want to fight crime realize that these are not the weapons typically used to stick up convenience stores. Calling them assault weapons doesn’t make them more dangerous.

Indeed, one could also ask whether California accomplishes anything by restricting “military-style” rifles, since the cosmetic appearance of those weapons doesn’t make them any more lethal. What makes a rifle more deadly is its ammunition capacity. Focusing the debate on that issue (as I’ve suggested) would add credibility to the advocacy of gun control.

Credibility, sad to say, is not what any of the most vociferous advocates seem to seek. Gun control proponents greeted Brown’s measured action—which, after all, added more restrictions to the California statute book—by telling the governor he would have “blood on his hands.” Criminals and psychotic killers have blood on their hands, not politicians seeking to forge compromise public policy.

Returning fire with equal judiciousness, Sam Paredes of the pro-firearms group Gun Owners of California said it was intolerable that Brown had signed measures that impose new rules to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, require safer storage of handguns, and oblige buyers of rifles and shotguns to pass safety tests. Can you imagine—safety tests! “We were only shot in the heart six times instead of 12 times, and I guess we should be happy with that,” Paredes said. Excuse me, sir, but requiring safe storage of firearms is not akin to murder.

With both sides employing violent imagery and extremist thinking, it’s no wonder that the gun control debate seems like a futile morass.

Barrett is an assistant managing editor and senior writer at Bloomberg Businessweek. His new book, Law of the Jungle, tells the story of the Chevron oil pollution case in Ecuador.

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