Armed and legislated

Will the flurry of gun-control bills even matter?

The National Rifle Association is right: People kill people. The use of firearms makes it significantly easier, however. Put as nicely as possible, guns are facilitators. The number of California thumbtack-related deaths in 2010 pales against the 2,811 deaths involving guns the same year, a little more than half of which were suicides. (In comparison, 12,830 Californians died of lung cancer in 2012. Alcohol contributed to 886 traffic fatalities in 2011.)

Massacring 20 first graders, whether in Connecticut or Karachi, is horrific enough to galvanize politicians—even members of Congress—into trying to prevent what are usually called “such needless tragedies” from happening anymore.

New York and California lawmakers, whose respective states have the country’s toughest and next-to-toughest restrictions on gun ownership and operation, swear stricter rules and tougher enforcement of existing laws are the answer.

There’s a package of eight bills in California moving through committees to the Senate floor. Backers of the bills say the measures regulate firearms in a smarter way than previous efforts. Two to three times as many gun-related bills have likely been introduced in the Assembly. Among them is legislation by Sacramento’s Roger Dickinson to place a 5-cent tax on every bullet sold. The California State Board of Equalization estimates the tax would raise $49 million annually. The money would be used to expand mental-health screenings for kindergarteners through third grade. The board says 1.2 billion bullets are sold in California annually.

It’s excellent there’s all this hullabaloo about how well the state’s policy on firearms works, particularly when it centers on making existing programs deliver better.

The Department of Justice’s Armed Prohibited Persons System was established in 2007. There wasn’t enough money or people last year to take away more than 2,000 of the 38,563 handguns and 1,647 assault weapons found to be in the hands of 19,770 Californians, who the law says can’t possess them. An emergency bill is scheduled today, March 7, for a vote of the full Senate to beef up the program using $18 million of existing state money. About 30 percent of those 19,770 people aren’t supposed to possess guns because of mental issues. And some of those folks will still be twitchy wack jobs channeling their inner Chuck Manson even after their guns go bye-bye.

But just as guns don’t kill people, being mentally ill isn’t synonymous with “crazed butcher.” As Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s spokesman Rhys Williams says pretty definitively: “Not every killer is mentally ill, and not every mentally ill person is a killer. The vast majority of people suffering mental illness do so in silence. They’ll never commit a crime, let alone commit mass murder.”

So what’s a politician to do who wants to save future generations of children from “such needless tragedies” as being mowed down by rapid-firing weaponry?

In California’s 1989 first-in-the-nation “assault weaponban, make and model was the criteria for prohibition. So makers changed model names. In 1999, the ban centered on a weapon’s attributes. Manufacturers changed the attributes. If a semiautomatic firearm with a “smooth bore” was on the ban list, a “rifled bore” was substituted. As a result, the Senate says this time the proposed restrictions focus on “capacity and capability,” which are less easy to circumvent.

Perhaps, but some of the bills in the Senate package illustrates the strategy. One bans possession of a 10-round or more magazine. (Sales were outlawed in 2000 but possession wasn’t.) No fixed magazines for long guns.

Every gun bill that purports to make Californians safer from themselves will pass the Democratic-majority Legislature. So far, Gov. Jerry Brown is publicly silent about what—if anything—he likes in gun-law changes. Without some parameters by Brown, actions over the next few weeks on gun legislation is pretty much Billy Shakespeare’s tale full of sound and fury. Or, it’s what Woody Allen described as “sex with someone you love.”