Like so many big issues, Gov. Jerry Brown has a long track record of twists and turns on the subject of gun control. And his final judgment of the bills sent to his desk by the Legislature this year keeps that reputation intact.
Brown offered what can only be called a split decision Friday afternoon on 17 gun or ammunition related bills (entire Friday list of bills), almost all of which passed on party-line votes in the Legislature. In most every case, the governor's vetoes were focused on what he said he didn't have in front of him: evidence that they would reduce crime.
A prime example of that approach can be found in Brown's veto of Senate Bill 374, the ban on new sales of semi-automatic weapons with detachable ammunition clips.
"I don't believe that this bill's blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners' rights," he said in his veto message (PDF).
Similar concerns were raised in the governor's vetoes of everything from a new limitation on the transfer of guns without approved safety devices (called 'unsafe handguns' in bill parlance) to a ban on rifles with a revolving cylinder.
On the other hand, Brown signed into law some new restrictions fought tooth and nail by gun owners and gun rights advocates. Those include a requirement for an ID to be checked during the sale of ammunition; a ban on the limit on ownership of assault-style weapons to individuals and not a group of citizens; and an extension of the waiting period to obtain a gun if the background check isn't completed in the normal 10-day time frame.
The governor also signed into law Assembly Bill 711, a hotly debate bill that now bans the sale and use of lead ammunition for hunting by 2019.
The early reaction to Brown's straddling of the 2013 gun debate was mostly anger from gun control advocates. Almost all of the bills were sparked by the December 2012 school shooting in Newtown, Conn. and other national high-profile incidents. While California is generally considered to have the strictest gun laws in the nation, gun control activists believe the state should do more.
"Governor Brown chose to put craven political considerations above the safety and well-being of California's more than 38 million residents," said Paul Song, chairman of the liberal Courage Campaign.
On the veto of his SB 374, Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg seemed to take aim at the governor's reticence for a stronger stance.
"Aggressive action is precisely what's needed to reduce the carnage in our communities," said Steinberg, D-Sacramento, "and to counter the equally aggressive action by the gun industry which is intent on exploiting loopholes in our existing ban on assault weapons."
Brown has a decidedly mixed record through the years on gun control. He's supported some restrictions, as he did with these new laws, while going so far as attorney general in 2009 to advocate against a handgun ban in the city of Chicago. As with so many issues, the governor seems to reflect the contradictions in the broader California electorate when it comes to the role of guns in modern society.
His decisions on these bills, some of his last legislative opinions for 2013, only reinforce that perception.