May 28, 2024
Gun control ballot measure is carefully orchestrated California political theater.

When Proposition 13, California’s iconic property tax limit measure, went before voters in June 1978, the state’s governor, Jerry Brown, denounced it.

“It’s a ripoff,” Brown declared. “It’s a long-term tax increase.”

Two months later, after voters overwhelming endorsed the measure, Brown did a 180-degree pirouette, declaring himself a “born-again tax cutter.”

“No new taxes,” Brown promised. “Voters have told us they want a tax cut. They don’t want a shell game.”

Facing re-election to a second term later that year, Brown sponsored a state tax cut to obey, he said, the popular mandate.

Two months after winning re-election, Brown delivered his inaugural address and proposed an amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring the federal government’s budget to be balanced.

“A constitutional convention to propose an amendment to balance the budget is unprecedented, but so is the political paralysis that prevents necessary action,” Brown said, blaming deficit spending for a sharp increase in inflation “as destructive to our social well-being as an invading army.”

Thereupon, Brown beseeched the state Legislature to pass a resolution supporting his call for a constitutional convention, touching off a circus-like round of legislative hearings.

It was carefully orchestrated political theater, clearly aimed at carving out a platform for Brown’s second run at the presidency in 1980 by portraying incumbent President Jimmy Carter as a spendthrift out of touch with popular support for austerity and tax cuts.

Brown garnered much media attention for his newly minted cause but his 1980 presidential run was a disaster, winning exactly one delegate to the Democratic convention. Carter later lost the presidency to Brown’s predecessor as governor, Ronald Reagan.

This bit of political history is offered because it seems to be repeating itself 45 years later.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is obviously trying to raise his national political profile for whatever reason, is now embracing his own amendment to the U.S. Constitution, adding gun control provisions emulating those in California.

It would raise the legal age for gun ownership to 21, require universal background checks, impose minimum waiting periods and institute an assault weapons ban.

“We want to go on the offense and be for something and build a movement that’s bottom up, not top down,” he told Politico in advance of his announcement in June.

More recently, as a resolution was drafted in the Legislature to support Newsom’s crusade, he castigated the U.S. Supreme Court’s gun control decisions, much as Brown had pinned inflation on Carter 45 years earlier.

“This Supreme Court is that bad,” Newsom said. “The Bruen decision was that bad. When I say code red, this is code red. California’s led the nation on common sense gun safety laws.

“And we have the receipts,” Newsom added. “The efficacy of those laws is demonstrable. The data bears out – California’s gun death rates significantly declined since California’s leadership in this space.”

The cause-and-effect relationship Newsom poses is questionable, because there are many other factors affecting violent crime. Moreover, the state’s gun control laws are not as bulletproof as he implies.

California’s assault rifle ban is something of a joke. The targeted firearms are readily available in gun stores after undergoing a few cosmetic alterations that do nothing about their lethality. While law-abiding gun owners must go through paper hoops to buy new firearms, there’s a vigorous illicit market that allows the feloniously inclined to buy all the guns they want.

Like Brown’s effort, Newsom’s gun crusade is just a political stunt designed to garner him more national media attention. He has zero chance of getting his gun control amendment introduced, much less adopted, and he knows it.

Dan Walters is a CalMatters columnist.

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