“You see a lot of the same ideas introduced in Sacramento and Washington,” says Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), speaking on parallel gun-control efforts ongoing in California and Congress—efforts that are in the spotlight following the Orlando mass-shooting on June 12.
The big difference? In California, the state legislature actually passes a pretty regular raft of gun-control bills that have teeth to them, and Gov. Jerry Brown even signs some of them, as he did on July 1. The state has some of the toughest gun laws in the country and has enacted limits on, for example, the magazine capacities of assault-style weapons that include the AR-15, a version of which was used in the Orlando massacre.
California has extensive background-check procedures, while Congress won’t move to close a loophole in gun shows that undermines the background check.
Congressional Democrats took to the floor last week, conducting a sit-in protest of legislative inaction on gun control, led by Georgia Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis. Rep. Sam Farr (D-Carmel) took part in the protest along with more than 150 other House Democrats, plus a few colleagues from the Senate, who even brought their comrades some “munchies” to snack on, Farr tells GT. Farr, who represents Santa Cruz, says he was at the 25-hour protest until about 4 a.m. before deciding he should try to get some sleep.
While on the floor, Farr spoke proudly about California’s laws banning the sale of assault weapons and limiting the number of ammunition rounds in a magazine—and called on other states to do the same. Shortly after, Gov. Brown signed new gun bills, further restricting magazine rounds and requiring background checks to buy ammunition statewide.
California may have tough gun laws, but its border with other states is even more porous than its border with Mexico, which makes it difficult to cut off the flow of illegal weapons. “In Sacramento, they can actually move forward on these bills,” says Huffman, “but the problem is they don’t have much effect if there’s no federal law.”
And where Congress has notoriously refused to fund a study on the negative health impacts of gun violence on society (the Center for Disease Control hasn’t done a comprehensive study in two decades), California has drafted a state bill that would do just that.
“We’re working from the same playbook,” says Huffman of gun-control efforts in California and Congress. “We’d like to see certain military-style assault weapons banned, high-capacity ammunition systems banned. We’d like to see far better safeguards and background checks. We’d like to see safety systems, locking systems, biometrics—that’s why you see similar ideas being introduced in the two bodies. The difference is, in one place they go there to die.”
After a heartrending filibuster led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, designed to push Senate Republicans to a vote on gun control, Huffman last week co-signed a bill that aims to patch a hole in the nation’s effort to protect itself from attacks committed under the flag of terror, if not ISIS itself.
Under the bill, no one on a terrorist-watch list will be able to buy a gun without the FBI getting a notification. The Senate shot down a similar bill, along with three others, and refused to vote on the House version—part of what prompted the sit-in, which was broadcast on Facebook and Periscope.
Huffman defends the bill, often called “No Fly, No Buy” as being limited, and necessary. “We’re only talking about a notification process,” he says, “and I don’t think that’s a huge intrusion into due process or privacy. I don’t have a problem [with notification] for someone who is investigated for terrorist ties if they go out and buy an AR-15.”
Of course, perfectly innocent people have, at times, ended up on those lists when their only transgression is having the same name as a bad guy. And although Huffman concedes it’s often easier to get on a list than to get off one, there is an appeal process.
It seems that every time there’s a mass shooting, the battle over gun control takes a predictable arc that sees the issue become bogged down in semantic details, like proper ways to describe the weapon. Even as a gun owner who supports the Second Amendment, Huffman says he has “fallen into that trap” and been attacked by gundamentalists for skewing the difference, for example, between a clip and a magazine.
Northern California gun owner Keith Rhinehart says he knows how, in the aftermath of mass-casualty shootings, the fixation with nomenclature tends to obscure realities. “Most NRA members, like myself, are pretty sane, normal people who don’t believe you should be able to go to a gun show, buy a gun and walk out,” says Rhinehart, who finished third in the District 1 Sonoma County Supervisor race.
Rhinehart supports closing the gun-show loophole and in “cooling off” periods for someone who wants to buy a weapon. “I honestly can’t figure out why they are so militant about no restrictions on firearms, or on waiting lists, or on people who are on the terror lists,” he says. “Most of the NRA members, like myself, do believe that these restrictions should be in place. The image problem of the NRA has more to do with the leadership than the membership.”
Robert Edmonds is a Sonoma County gun owner and an anarchist—a philosophy that is, for him, creative, community-based and noncoercive.
Edmonds owns several guns and was raised in a house where his father once threw away a toy revolver because he pointed it at someone. “That was imprinted in me,” says Edmonds. “You never point a gun at anyone, even a toy gun.”
Edmonds says he hasn’t fired any of his weapons in over a year and a half, and that was just plinking at pie tins. He has also given some thought to the obsession over proper nomenclature.
“If you have a steadfast position, you develop your body of research and wind up with ultra-refined arguments that support your case,” he says. “That becomes a justification to throw out all reasonable arguments if someone is inaccurate.”
Huffman and Farr both stress that no one in Congress wants to discuss taking draconian steps, like repealing the Second Amendment.
“We’re willing to go down with this ship,” Farr says. “But in our case, we feel like we’re going to launch this ship into a better place with reasonable gun legislation. And all we’re doing is setting limits. We’re not taking people’s guns away. We’re not wiping out. We’re not repealing. We have a lot of gun owners who are tweeting us who support us.”
Additional reporting contributed by Jacob Pierce.