McCarthy resolution aims to clean up state gun laws, could spark new battles

In the last week of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers quietly
passed a resolution to embark on a multi-year process of rewriting and
simplifying of California’s gun laws.

Behind the scenes, some were debating the role one staffer may have had in
making those laws complicated–and what his role might be as the entire body
of state firearms code heads back through the Legislature.

Assembly Concurrent Resolution 73 passed the Assembly on August 29. The only
no came from Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, who said his vote was a mistake due
to late-session exhaustion. The Legislature unanimously agreed that
California gun laws are overly complex and difficult to understand.

ACR 73 calls on the California Law Revision Commission to reduce the “length
and complexity” of state gun laws. It was put forth last year by Assemblyman
Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, at the request of the Gun Owners of
California. Sam Paredes, the group’s executive director, said they have been
seeking for years to have the code simplified.

The Commission board of directors will meet on October 27 to determine their
agenda for the next year. According to executive secretary Nathaniel
Sterling, firearms-code revision definitely will be one of the top
priorities. He said the Commission will deliver preliminary recommendations
next year, hold numerous meetings for public comment, and then prepare final
recommended legislation by July 1, 2009.

“It’s a substantial body of law,” Sterling said. “Staff will have to do
quite a bit of initial legwork.”

The goal is to create legislation that would simplify statutes without
changing their effect. But the recommendations then will have to be put into
new legislation, and then voted on. This still could lead to traditional
foes re-fighting many of their old battles, said CSUS criminal-justice
professor William Vizzard.

“A cleanup is never just a cleanup,” said Vizzard, who has written books on
gun laws and the history of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
“Someone always views it as an opportunity to make changes that benefit one
side or the other.”

Such a large code-cleanup operation could be particularly complex in this
case, Vizzard said, because terms limits have ensured that there are few
legislators with much experience in firearms law. For most politicians, guns
votes are a way to label your opponent a “scumbag liberal commie or a
right-wing reactionary.” But no one has anything approaching the firearms
knowledge of a small cadre of staffers and lobbyists, he said.

Democratic Senate staffer Irwin Nowick, who has worked extensively on state
gun laws, said there are several areas when legislators may fight among
themselves, rekindling old battles: the open carrying of handguns, mandatory
registration of rifles and shotguns, rules for private-party transactions,
and retroactive registration of older guns.

McCarthy and Paredes said the resolution is not aimed at Nowick. But
speaking privately, multiple people said that the legislation at least
partially sought to address legal code written by Nowick. ACR 73 contains
references to practices that Nowick is known for, calling for the new code
to ensure “similar provisions are located in close proximity” and to “avoid
unnecessary use of cross-references.”

“I don’t think I made anything really complicated,” Nowick said. “I think
there are complicated situations that needed to be addressed. You have to
deal with the real world of people.”

Some of these real-world situations include private party transactions,
particularly where people inherit guns. This is why firearms laws reference
family and estate law, among other code sections. State gun code is designed
partially around a system of “urban rules and rural exceptions,” Nowick
said. In fact, he said, Pennsylvania currently is trying to overhaul that
state’s gun laws–and many legislators there are bringing up California laws
as an example of rules that work.

The list of gun bills that Nowick has worked on over the years in extensive:
AB 3707 by Johan Klehs in 1988, which put restrictions on private party gun
sales; AB 497 in 1990, which added to the list of people who are not
allowed to own guns; and AB 3552 by Dan Hauser, which created rules for
estate transactions in 1991. In 1993 and 1994, he worked on bills that
established rules for private-party gun sales.

In the most recent session, he said he worked on AB 2714 by Assemblyman
Alberto Torrico, D-Newark, which demands people present identification to
buy ammunition, and AB 2521 by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, which
imposes rules on gun dealers. Both bills passed.

If reformers want to make the laws both simple and consistent, “they’re
going to have to make a series of policy decisions they don’t want to make,”
he said. They likely also would have to go up against police organizations,
who are “pretty happy” with state gun laws. Finally, Nowick noted that many
people have attempted overhauls in the past, most notably Attorney General
Bill Lockyer a decade ago when he was in the Senate.

But both Nowick and those on the pro-gun side agreed that the laws have been
complex since long before 1988, when he got involved. Much of this has to do
with the crisis-driven nature of gun laws, with statues written in response
to incidents like the 1967 protest at the Capitol where the Black Panthers
carried guns and the 1989 Stockton school shooting.

“It started pre-Irwin,” Paredes said. “Irwin has certainly had an influence
on California gun laws. He is part of what made them complicated.”

Nowick said that much of the reason so much attention focuses on him is that
he “drives the NRA crazy” because he’s a knowledgeable gun owner who favors
registration controls. He said he owns “four or five” rifles and shotguns,
and enjoys duck hunting.

“I’m not a very good shot,” Nowick added.

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