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Ballot Measure Seeks to Regulate Ammunition Sales, Take Guns from Felons

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

In this photo taken Monday, April 20, 2015, Lt. Gavin Newsom speaks at the Californians for Safety and Justice conference in Sacramento, Calif.

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Marisa Lagos | KQED

Depending on whom you ask, it’s a question of either common sense or constitutional rights: Should ammunition be treated like guns are, with background checks for buyers and limits on who can sell?

It’s one of several questions facing voters within Proposition 63, a gun control measure sponsored by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom. The initiative would also require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to law enforcement; set up a process for convicted felons to give up their guns; and fully ban magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds of bullets.

Additionally, the ballot measure would require state officials to continue to share the names of people prohibited from having guns with the FBI and require that gun stores conduct background checks of their employees.

Newsom sees ammunition regulation as perhaps the measure’s most consequential provision. He said other states will follow suit if California passes Proposition 63.

“I think we are having a very important debate in this country about background checks on guns, but a gun has never killed anybody, unless it’s used as a blunt instrument,” Newsom said. “A gun needs a component — and that’s the ammunition — to be deadly. And the reality is today anyone can buy ammunition anywhere. There’s no licensing requirements to buy ammunition.  … Any local grocery store, liquor store, can legally sell unlimited rounds of ammunition. You can get truckloads of ammunition sent to your doorstep online. There’s no background checks for the people selling them and there’s no background checks for the people purchasing them.

“I have no problem with people purchasing guns. I have no problem with people purchasing ammunition. I just want the right people purchasing guns and the right people purchasing ammunition.”

Gun enthusiasts see Proposition 63 as an attack on their Second Amendment rights.

Craig DeLuz, spokesman for the Stop 63 campaign and a lobbyist for the Firearms Policy Coalition in Sacramento, said that, for the most part, Proposition 63 will do nothing to crack down on criminals who use guns and instead will punish people who follow the law.

Most of the provisions of this bill do not affect anyone who has been convicted of a crime. It does not affect terrorists; it does not affect potential mass shooters; it does not affect criminals. It only affects law-abiding citizens,” said DeLuz.

He contends that California has plenty of gun control laws on the books already.

“We are getting to the point where we are just piling on, and when you make complying with the law so onerous, then one of two things happen,” he said. “One, I decide it’s too onerous and expensive for me to comply with the law or I get to a point where I am just going to ignore the law … and I decide that the defense of myself and my family is more important than following laws that go against the Constitution.”

One Man’s Reasons

Bob Weiss has a different take. His daughter, Veronika Weiss, was a 19-year-old UC Santa Barbara freshman when she — along with five other UCSB students — was killed by a mentally disturbed man in 2014. The killer went on a rampage through Isla Vista, the town adjacent to UCSB where most students live, with three guns that he had legally purchased.

Bob Weiss with a poster of his daughter, Veronika, who was killed in a mass shooting near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. He's campaigning for Proposition 63.
Bob Weiss with a poster of his daughter, Veronika, who was killed in a mass shooting near UC Santa Barbara in 2014. He’s campaigning for Proposition 63.(Marisa Lagos/KQED)

Weiss has been an outspoken advocate for stricter gun control laws ever since — an issue he felt strongly about even before his daughter was killed. Weiss said he knows that most people who die by gunshot won’t be part of a mass killing or even the victim of a mentally ill shooter, like his daughter, but he wants to support laws that will reduce gun deaths overall.

“Obviously, with 33,000 Americans getting shot to death every year, something is terribly wrong with our system. It doesn’t happen at this rate in Canada or Australia or Switzerland. Any other developed nation doesn’t have the rate of gun violence that we have in America,” he said.

The Gun Owners Who ‘Don’t Own Guns’

Newsom said Proposition 63’s ammunition regulation provision isn’t aimed at mass shooters, but at making it harder for a much larger group of criminals to get bullets: Those that acquire guns illegally but can purchase ammunition anywhere.

“The most important folks we are trying to bring in under the ammunition background check are people that quote-unquote don’t own a gun, but are legally buying ammunition at Wal-Mart, Big 5 and online. These are the people who are involved in the overwhelming majority of homicides in inner cities all across this country but here in California,” he said.

Gun control laws such as background checks work, said Julie Leftwich, legal director at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The nonprofit partnered with Newsom to write Proposition 63. It also helped push a law, supported by Weiss, that instated a gun violence restraining order in California allowing police and family members to petition a court to take away someone’s firearms. 

“We have passed, as a state, over 50 strong gun safety laws (over the past 20 years) and our gun deaths have dropped by 56 percent, which is twice as much as other states,” Leftwich said. “We have done a lot and it is making a difference. … If you look nationally, Brady background checkshave stopped more than 2.5 million criminals and other prohibited people from buying guns.”

Weiss said Proposition 63 is mostly common sense: He called ammunition background checks “smart” and said they won’t hamper recreational gun users. And he called the provision requiring newly convicted felons to get rid of their guns “kind of a no-brainer.”

An Infringement on Your Rights?

But DeLuz has a problem with each and every one of the ballot measure’s provisions.

DeLuz said with California’s strong laws around buying guns, there’s no need for the ammunition background checks — and he warned it could lead to racial profiling of certain gun users.

He said requiring gun owners to report when a firearm is lost or stolen will “make a victim of them once again,” and could result in a previously law-abiding person being labeled a criminal. Proposition 63 makes it an infraction, or a simple ticket, to fail to report a lost or stolen gun, with increasing penalties if a person repeatedly fails to report missing firearms. Supporters of the measure say it will help police crack down on gun traffickers.

And while it’s been illegal in California to buy or sell magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets since 1994, DeLuz said the provision of Proposition 63 requiring people who have older magazines to get rid of them amounts to confiscation of private property.

Finally, he said the provision requiring felons to prove to a court that they have given up a gun before sentencing will burden probation departments that are already stretched thin. He noted that some law enforcement groups oppose Proposition 63, though their opposition mostly centers around the fact that the ballot measure doesn’t exempt law enforcement officers from its requirements.

Buying in Bulk

He also said it would drive up the price of bullets for law-abiding citizens.

These laws are going to do nothing. It might make it worse. It’s going to create a black market.James Cloud

“A lot of times when people purchase ammunition they purchase it in bulk because it’s cheaper — like toilet paper,” DeLuz said.

Longtime recreational shooter James Cloud, who was practicing at Jackson Arms shooting range in South San Francisco recently, agreed. He said it’s easy to go through thousands of rounds of bullets in a single afternoon and that buying them online is the cheapest option.

Gun stores and ranges “are going to charge way more, double or triple,” he said. Cloud said it’s already confusing trying to navigate the patchwork of state and local laws in California.

“It’s nuts,” he said. “It’s out of control, because you know what it is? I think the laws are definitely not targeting criminals now, not at all. They get their guns out of state or they are going to go to Mexico. These laws are going to do nothing. It might make it worse. It’s going to create a black market.”

DeLuz also accused Newsom of using the ballot measure to help raise money and his political profile in advance of the 2018 governor’s race. 

“He’s taking an issue that specifically affects constitutional rights, that has to do with protecting people’s safety,  and he’s using it as a political tool,” he said.

A Parent’s Worst Fear

Some of the issues Proposition 63 tackles were already broached by several laws signed by Gov. Jerry Brown this summer. But Newsom said Proposition 63 is still crucial to ensure Californians’ safety because it is stronger than the laws passed in Sacramento and, if passed by voters, cannot be undone by lawmakers in the future.

Newsom said he’s tackling this issue because he cares deeply about it.

“I have been to more homicides than most people because I was mayor of a city. I have seen firsthand the devastation of gun violence. I’ve got four kids. Last year, more preschoolers were gunned down than police officers in the line of duty,” he said. “When I drop my kids off at school I have parents, literally, on my mother’s grave, that have asked me about gun violence because they are scared to death about dropping their kids off at school. I can’t stand these aspects of guns and gun violence, and I can’t stand this gun lobby.”