In vetoing gun-control bill, Brown misses the mark

The governor's decision to reject SB 755 ignores research that links alcohol offenses to a greater risk of future gun violence.

Jerry Brown

California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill last week that would have added repeated alcohol and drug offenses as reasons for denying gun ownership. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / May 29, 2013)

SACRAMENTO — One thing I don't get: If people kill people — guns don't — why is it OK for a perpetually drunken person to own a gun? Gov. Jerry Brown thinks it is.

A drunk with a gun is double-barreled trouble.

Studies show that a gun owner with one misdemeanor conviction — such as a DUI — is five times more likely to commit a violent crime with a firearm than a gunner with no prior arrest record, according to Garen Wintemute, director of the UC Davis Violence Prevention Research Program.

But Brown vetoed a bill last week that would have added repeated alcohol and drug offenses as reasons for denying gun ownership. Two DUIs or other misdemeanor substance abuse convictions within three years and you couldn't possess a firearm for 10 years.

Not even the gun lobby aggressively opposed that legislation, SB 755 by Sen. Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

Brown, in his veto message, said: "I am not persuaded that it is necessary to prohibit gun ownership on the basis of crimes that are non-felonies, non-violent and do not involve misuse of a firearm."

I asked the governor's office for some elaboration. The response: "The message speaks for itself."

So the message is that the governor doesn't see why a convicted drunk or druggie shouldn't be armed.

"I was just stunned," Wintemute says. "He was just wrong on the facts. There is persuasive evidence out there. There are dozens of studies associating acute alcohol intoxication and a history of DUIs with the risk of committing future gun violence. That's established beyond doubt."

Wintemute, an emergency room physician who has been researching firearms violence for three decades, adds, "Of all the gun bills proposed this year, SB 755 might have been the one to have the largest effect on crime rates. We missed a chance to do some good here."

It's not like a new concept was being proposed. In California, a third DUI is a felony. And under federal law, a felony results in a lifetime ban on gun ownership.

Wolk tried to talk to Brown about the bill, but her request was denied.

Neither did Brown confer with the author of the legislative session's most high-profile gun bill before vetoing it. That measure was the main target of the National Rifle Assn., which considered it Draconian and threatened to sue if the governor signed it.

The bill, SB 374, by Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would have banned the sale of most semiautomatic rifles capable of accepting detachable magazines. Those already in existence would have had to be registered.

Steinberg's goal was to close a loophole used by gun manufacturers to skirt California's assault weapons ban.

"I don't believe that this bill's blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles," Brown said inaccurately in his veto message, "would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners' rights."

Brown was wrong. There would not have been a "blanket ban" on semiautomatic rifles. Some small- caliber guns — mostly .22s — would have been exempt.

Nevertheless, there was some rationale for the veto, unlike with the drunken gunner bill. Many semiautomatic rifles have detachable magazines that hold only three or four rounds. It would be more difficult to turn those into mass-killing machines than if the shooter were feeding the gun with 10-round magazines, the legal limit in California.

Brown correctly pointed out that the proposed ban would have covered "low-capacity rifles that are commonly used for hunting, firearms training and marksmanship practice."

The gun lobby was grateful, but some of Brown's Democratic base exploded.

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