The California Front

While D.C. stumbles, the Golden State takes on gun reform

‘You see a lot of the same ideas introduced in Sacramento and Washington,” says North Bay congressman and gun owner Jared Huffman, speaking on parallel gun-control efforts ongoing in California and Congress—efforts that are now in the spotlight following the Orlando mass-shooting two weeks ago.

The big difference? The California Legislature actually passes a pretty regular raft of gun-control bills that have teeth to them, and Gov. Brown even signs some of them. 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 law puts a 10-round limit on magazine capacity, and over the past year, with the San Bernardino killings as a backdrop, the state has considered numerous bills that mirror failed efforts in Congress to rein in the gun lobby and its Congressional lapdogs. The state has extensive background-check procedures, and yet Congress can’t even be moved to close a loophole in gun shows that undermines the background check.

California may have tough gun laws, but its border with other states is even more porous than its border with Mexico, and there’s no wall to keep the flow of illegal weapons out of the state. “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.”

California is further tweaking its ammunition-capacity regulations to make them even more restrictive. Assemblyman Marc Levine offered a bill after Orlando, for instance, that would expand the definition of “assault weapon” in this state to include weapons with a so-called “bullet button” that allows a shooter to quickly switch out expended magazines. Meanwhile, Congress can’t even pass a bill to eliminate high-capacity magazines.

And where Congress has notoriously refused to fund a study on the negative health impacts of gun violence on society, California has taken up the cudgel and offered a state bill that would do the same.

“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.”

Huffman sounded downright despondent in a Marin Independent Journal story about gun violence and congressional inaction that came out right after Orlando. “Despondent may not be a bad term, but I don’t want to suggest that I’m overwhelmed and giving up,” he says. “I am absolutely dismayed at the callousness and lack of empathy by the Republican majority, but we’re not giving up—we’re doing something every week to get these guys on record and continuously giving them the opportunity to do the right thing.”

After a heartrending filibuster led by Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, designed to push Senate Republicans to a vote—any vote—on gun control, and House Democratic protest at the latest round of congressional moments of silence in service of unanswered “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, Huffman last week co-signed a bill introduced by Napa congressman Mike Thompson 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 Thompson’s bill, if you’re on a terrorist watch list, you’re not buying a gun without the FBI getting a notification. On Monday the senate shot down a similar bill, along with three others.

The hurdle for such seemingly common-sense efforts, as Republicans have highlighted, is that American citizens, including sexually confused Muslim-American wife-beaters, have a constitutional right to due process—and that once you’ve been cleared of a crime or subjected to an investigation that doesn’t yield a charge, you should not be punished. This country does not typically remove rights from people on the principle of “Well, we wouldn’t put it past him.”

Huffman defends the Thompson bill 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.”

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There’s a definitional issue embedded in the gun debate that’s caught up in the noxiously partisan and divisive politics of the day. It raises an issue of who is the real terrorist here? Would gun rights be taken away from, say, members of radical environmental organizations deemed “terrorists” by a pro-corporate government? How about Black Lives Matter activists? How about Rosie O’Donnell?

As a self-described civil libertarian, Huffman agrees with the general notion that it’s easier to get on a list than to get off of one, even as he discounts so-called slippery slope arguments in the context of the narrowly written Thompson bill. But the upshot is that any citizen, regardless of his or her thoughts on guns, should be concerned about the creation of bad-person lists as the Republican Party lurches toward a convention with an unhinged candidate who quite clearly has a simmering list of his own that’s he’s cooked up—a candidate who has come right out and accused the sitting president of conspiring with ISIS. From there, it’s not such a big leap to, say, Jeff Bezos. Terrorist.

And then there’s Newt Gingrich, would-be vice-presidential candidate, here playing the obvious Frank Underwood role as schemer-in-chief. In the Gingrich House of Cards, it’s pretty easy to see a plotline of impeachment unfold the minute L’Orange takes office, on the increasingly obvious grounds that he’s totally unfit for the office he seeks. Enter Gingrich to save the day with statesmanlike charm, and a fierce advocate at his side. (“Callista, I need you to take some makeup tips from Claire Underwood.”)

After Orlando, Gingrich called for the creation of a 21st-century House Un-American Activities Committee, a suggestion that represents a tangible slippery slope emerging from the warped wormhole of McCarthyism—as opposed to the ersatz slippery slope pimped by the NRA every time someone shoots up a school or an office or a nightclub.

The problem is that one person’s “un-American” activity is another person’s heroic defense of the republic. Under one set of values, the Obama-hating, right-wing Arkansas senator Tom Cotton ought to be hauled before a reconstituted HUAC because of his flagrantly seditious attempt to undermine Obama’s nuclear deal with the Iranians. Under another, he’s a hero and it’s Obama who should be hauled before the committee to answer questions about, you know, his Barack Hussein Obama ties to terrorism.

Huffman agrees with a larger point over the political potency of lists, which can be used to quite devious ends. “When you start talking about lists and un-American activities,” he says, “everybody gets nervous.”

That concern intersects, and brutally so, with another aspect of the present debate over gun control, occurring as it does during a period of intense fractiousness and the country hanging in the balance between the stank forces of Clinton’s corporate liberalism and the full-on neofascist nationalism of Trump.

It seems every time there’s a mass shooting, the battle over gun control takes a predictable arc that deflects the issue from how to try and stop the attacks to the proper way to describe the weapon. There’s a fixation in the gun community that demands, as a matter of presumptive superiority on such matters, that gun-hating liberals use the proper nomenclature as the entry price for any conversation about guns, which then quickly devolves into “Obama is coming for my guns.”

Huffman himself is a gun owner with roots in the Midwest. “I’m not hostile to guns,” he says. But even as a gun owner who supports the Second Amendment, Huffman has “fallen into that trap” and been attacked by gundamentalists for skewing the difference, for example, between a clip and a magazine.

As Obama observed on another issue with nomenclature demands of its own, what policy end is served by calling an assault weapon a military-style weapon? Or in mistaking a clip for a magazine, which was the subject of a “news” story on Breitbart.com last week after Obama, during a post-Orlando briefing, searched for the right word before saying “clip” when he should have said “magazine” in relation to the handgun that the Orlando killer used. What’s the strategic urgency in such nit-picking?

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Local gun owner Keith Rhinehart says he is wise to high-profile gundamentalists’ maneuvers in the aftermath of mass-casualty shootings and knows how the nomenclature fixation 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.”

Rhinehart, fresh off a solid third-place showing in his race for the 1st District Sonoma County Board of Supervisors seat, has been a member of the NRA for the past several years and has no plans to drop his membership in the wake of Orlando and the organization’s ensuing outbursts about how the government is coming for your guns.

Rhinehart says he’s comfortable with the Thompson bill, which the NRA opposes, and he makes numerous points that would make NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre reach for his proverbial pea-shooter. “In a rural county like Sonoma,” he says, “I believe that responsible gun ownership is a necessity. I’m also aware of the statistics on homeowners in their own homes when bad people break in”—in that weapons are often turned back on the person defending their home. He says that he has a healthy respect, if not a healthy fear, for the guns that he owns.

Rhinehart says he’s sticking with the NRA because he believes gun-reform efforts are better served by reasonable individuals working within the organization. He highlights lesser-known benefits of NRA membership, such as the accidental death-by-gun insurance policy the organization offers to members. Ironic. He also believes that in a free society such as ours, you can’t reasonably expect to stop every maniac with bad intentions. “No matter how much work the [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] does, the FBI does, there is always going to be someone who slips through. That’s the price we pay for a free society. Some people will be responsible, and some people won’t.”

But 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 an anarchist and a Sonoma County gun owner. To borrow a phrase from the McCarthy era, he’s not, and never has been, a member of the NRA. And his anarchism is a sort of ground-up anarchism, and not the sort of “anarchy” that unfolded in, say, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The NOLA anarchy meant lawless police officers were free to shoot African-Americans for crossing a bridge or “stealing” bottled water; Edmonds’ anarchy is creative and community-based and noncoercive.

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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’ own kids don’t even get the toy guns in the first place, he says. It’s an ironic enough statement coming from a Sonoma County activist who has been at the forefront of the post–Andy Lopez Santa Rosa, pushing for police accountability in a case that involved a young boy who was shot by police while holding a toy gun.

Edmonds echoes Huffman in saying that the slippery slope argument against gun control is a convenient fallacy—not to mention at obvious odds with the estimated half-billion guns in this country, with sales going through the roof every time another mass-shooter emerges from the mist and Obama sheds a tear about it.

A few years ago, Edmonds ascertained that there were around 12,000 gun transactions in Sonoma County and notes that, given the rural character of the county, you never know what the heck might happen out here. Could be a bobcat trying to kill your chickens; could be an armed intruder trying to kill you and your children; could be Stormfront taking matters in hand to Make America Great Again. Don’t worry: Edmonds has not killed any bobcats, and he doesn’t have an AR-15, either. He is, however, a 2016 Outstanding Volunteer award winner in Sonoma County.

“I have heard gunshots around 2, 3 in the morning,” says the Sebastopol resident. “This is kind of a remote area, and I feel a little more secure with the level of home protection I have.” That includes a .22 caliber rifle and other long guns. “I got rid of the handguns,” he says. “All the guns are under multiple layers of locks.”

Edmonds says he hasn’t fired any of his weapons in over a year and a half, and that was him just plinking at pie tins. He has also given some thought to the obsession with gundamentalists 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.”

Edmonds is highly aware of the dangers of lists and the subjectivity and malleability of such phrases as “mentally ill” and “terrorist.” A scan of open-carry videos will demonstrate how extreme gun-rights advocates have already internalized the “mentally ill” argument to include anyone who confronts them to ask why on earth are they are carrying an assault weapon into WalMart. Cue the Suicidal Tendencies lyric: I’m not crazy—you’re the one that’s crazy.

We’re living in crazy times.

‘I consider what would happen in the event of system failure,” Edmonds says, as he explores the ramifications of a common refrain among right-wing, gun-rights advocates generally expressed as WTSHTF.

The shit probably won’t hit the fan, but Edmonds is concerned for his fellow travelers on the left of the dial if it does. “You have people on the left side, I mostly agree with them—but what’s going to happen when one side has all the guns and my side doesn’t know how to use them? It’s in the back of my mind,” he adds, stressing, “I’m not advocating for it.”

Neither, obviously, is Huffman. But both men hint at hidden designs in the obsession over nomenclature and how it is mirrored in high-media obsessions over the proper terminology around the Orlando attack and what inspired it. “Radical Islam” is as much a rhetorical sleight-of-ideology as a gundamentalist obsessing over left-wing descriptions of high-powered weapons with the capacity to kill numerous humans.

“I happen to agree with that,” Huffman says. “There’s fixation on the terminology, and in that the bigger picture can be lost—and that may be by design.”

Huffman is not a member of the NRA. “That would almost be disqualifying in my district,” he says with a chuckle, adding, “I think that in talking to the gun enthusiasts, there needs to be a reality check on some of their rhetoric. No one is taking their guns away. . . . What we’re really talking about is a fairly discreet set of reforms without threatening any reasonable interpretation of their Second Amendment rights. It’s not a slippery slope, and that is what’s vexing in this debate, that any action is an irreversible slippery slope, and then tyranny. This is just preposterous.”

Casey Dobbert contributed reporting to this article.

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