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You Might Need a Background Check to Buy Bullets in California After Next Year

An initiative that could be on the 2016 ballot in California aims for strict new regulations that supporters hope will jumpstart the national gun control movement.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Oct 21 2015, 10:26am

Photo by Aaron M. Sprecher/EPA

In a move designed to jumpstart the national gun control movement, anti-gun groups and elected officials in California are pushing several tough new measures, including one that require would a background check to purchase ammunition, a law that would be the first of its kind nationally.

The proposal, unveiled last week by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, will be presented directly to the state's voters in a 2016 ballot initiative.

"We hope others will follow our lead," said Robyn Thomas, the president of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco, an advocacy group that helped craft the proposal. "California is a leader on gun laws — what we do here often finds its way to other states."

Speaking to reporters in San Francisco, Newsom presented the proposal as a reaction to the recent spate of mass shootings and the subsequent inaction in Congress. "It's an issue that none of us should have to address," Newsom said. "But there's an average of 92 shootings a day in this country… There's nothing immutable about the status quo."

Related: Everyone Responded to the Latest Mass Shooting Exactly as You'd Expect

On October 1, a 26-year-old gunman killed 10 people including himself at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The incident — like previous mass shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado — attracted national attention, but failed to move federal lawmakers to implement any new restrictions on gun ownership. President Barack Obama has repeatedly pleaded for a national response to gun violence, but several bills to ban assault weapons and strengthen background checks have fizzled.

'California is a leader on gun laws — what we do here often finds its way to other states.'

Individual states are given significant leeway to enact their own restrictions on guns, however, and the package unveiled by Newsom includes many policies that have long been on the wishlist of gun control advocates. The proposal calls for a ban on high-capacity magazines, strict background checks on ammunition sales, a law that forces individuals to report lost or stolen firearms, and a new mandate that would require the state to share data with the federal government on who is prohibited from owning guns.

Thomas said the measures are backed up by the latest gun violence research, calling them "common sense" and "logical."

"Research shows that tougher gun laws do have an impact on behavior," she said. "Criminals who live in places where it's harder to get guns don't get as many guns."

Watch Do We Need Stricter Gun Control? - The People Speak:

NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter released a statement that said the proposal is just the latest attempt to strip away the rights of gun owners. "California illustrates the true gun control agenda, which is the ultimate confiscation and banning of firearms," Hunter said.

Most controversially, the proposal would require people who wish to purchase ammunition to undergo a background check. Emanuel Kapelsohn, a leading expert on firearms and the vice president of International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors, compared the idea to "trying to control arson by registering matches."

Related: These Boy Scouts Are Now Using Gun Silencers During Shooting Practice

"I'm very skeptical of this approach," Kapelsohn said. "It's a great idea in theory, but do we think that gangbangers will go into a gun store and provide ID to get their ammo, or just go out on the street?"

Thomas dismissed Kapelsohn's objection as "BS."

"Guns can last forever, but you always need to buy new ammo," she said. "Is there going to be a black market? Sure, but that doesn't mean you don't pass the law."

Even if voters approve the new measures next year, Thomas acknowledged that lax gun laws in neighboring Nevada and Arizona would still allow Californians to cross the state line and have easy access to firearms and ammo. "It's difficult to account for that flow of guns and ammunition across the borders," Thomas said.

'It's a great idea in theory, but do we think that gangbangers will go into a gun store and provide ID to get their ammo?'

California already has some of the tightest controls on weapons, including a ban on assault weapons that has been in place for 26 years, and restrictions on the manufacture and sale of some high-capacity ammunition magazines.

Recent attempts to pass more gun control legislation have stalled in the California legislature. Earlier this month, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a measure that would have expanded the state's ability to ban certain misdemeanor offenders from owning guns.

Related: Why the Battle Over So-Called 'Cop-Killer' Ammunition Is Completely Ridiculous

Newsom blamed the lack of progress on the power of the gun lobby. "I'll say this to the NRA… you can intimidate politicians, we've seen that," he said. "Hell, you've been effective. But you can't intimidate the public. That's why we're bringing this directly to the public."

For the proposal to be included on the 2016 ballot, Newsom and his allies still have to gather signatures from 366,000 registered voters in California. Newsom told Reuters that several wealthy Californians had already promised to donate money for the campaign, and that there's strong grassroots support for his initiative.

The Public Policy Institute of California found that two-thirds of adults in the state want tougher gun control, with 57 percent of adults saying regulating gun ownership is more important than protecting the rights of gun owners.

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro

united states
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gun control
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