Is California’s assault weapons ban on target?

Gun Rights

This story is another in a series of occasional longform journalism pieces we plan to bring you covering some of California’s most pressing issues. We hope you enjoy it.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom has made national headlines touting his plan to add a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would implement what he’s called “common sense constitutional protections and gun safety measures that Democrats, Republicans, independent voters, and gun owners overwhelmingly support.”

His proposal essentially seeks to enshrine at the federal level several of California’s gun laws, including what the governor and the state call a ban on assault weapons.

But there is not universal agreement that California’s gun laws actually amount to a functional ban on assault weapons. As political columnist Dan Walters wrote in an August 21, 2023 column about Newsom’s constitutional proposal for CalMatters, “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.”

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Gov. Newsom would surely disagree. But then it is hard to even gain consensus on exactly what defines an assault weapon.

So are California’s restrictions on what it calls “assault weapons” substantive? Or is Walters’ assessment of them on target?

Capitol Weekly decided to investigate.

Over the Christmas holiday in December, this reporter met up with multiple weapons experts at a gun range in Las Vegas to fire two versions of the infamous AR-15 – one that meets the Golden State’s restrictive gun laws, one that doesn’t – as well as a full-blown machine gun.

Under the guidance of gun historian Ashley Hlebinsky, whose resume includes a stint at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Firearms Collection, Capitol Weekly dove headfirst into the rabbit hole of assault weapon definitions, bump stocks, state-level restrictions and Second Amendment rights, all with an eye towards understanding what really matters when it comes to public safety.

It was an enlightening journey into a thorny, complex, nuanced policy issue. It also happened to involve us shooting several big guns.

By now, the AR-15 is as much a political weapon as it is a physical one. Its use in a seemingly endless line of horrific mass shootings – including at schools in Uvalde, Texas; Newtown, Connecticut; and Parkland, Florida; and at a country music concert in Las Vegas – has made it a potent symbol for gun control advocates who want to see assault weapons excised from our communities.

But before diving into the politics, it is important to establish some basic facts about gun terminology, which can be colored by misperceptions and subtle distinctions that even political junkies may have overlooked.

First, “assault rifles” and “assault weapons” are not synonyms, even though they sound like the same thing. The term assault rifle traces its origins to Nazi Germany, which mass-produced a gun known as the “Sturmgewehr.” Sturmgewehr roughly translates to “assault rifle.”

Since then, the term assault rifle has come to generally be interpreted the world over as a “selective fire rifle.” Selective fire rifles have the ability to toggle between semi-automatic and automatic modes.

But there is not universal agreement that California’s gun laws actually amount to a functional ban on assault weapons.

Most people know that a rifle is a long gun typically fired from shoulder level, but the terms “automatic” and “semi-automatic” may be a bit more confusing.

An automatic gun – otherwise known as a machine gun – can fire multiple bullets when the shooter holds down the trigger. The shooter holds down the trigger and bullets fire continuously from the barrel, like water from a hose. (But not indefinitely, of course. Automatic guns run out of ammo rather quickly when their triggers are depressed.)

Machine guns in civilian life have been heavily regulated at the federal level since the National Firearms Act of 1934, but they are not banned. However, new domestic machine guns made after 1986 are banned under the Firearms Owners Protection Act of 1986.

Machine guns, automatic guns, are used by the miliary and that’s the context you’re most likely to encounter them – although, as we’ll soon see, some of these incredibly deadly weapons are allowed in our communities under strict regulation.

Things start to get murky when the subject turns to semi-automatic guns. Generally speaking, the term “assault weapon” applies to semi-automatic guns with special features (although the definition changes).

That phrase is much newer, rising to prominence in the 1980s thanks to gun control advocates like Josh Sugarmann, who explicitly explained in a paper that the term could be employed to influence the public: “Assault weapons – just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearm – are a new topic. The weapons’ menacing looks, coupled with the public’s confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons – anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun – can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.”

So, from the very beginning, the term assault weapon was used, at least in part, to confuse automatic and semi-automatic guns, which, as Sugarmann noted, look similar but function differently.

Semi-automatic guns can only fire one bullet per trigger pull. Holding down the trigger of a semi-automatic gun does not result in a spray of bullets like an automatic gun does.

The speed with which a semi-automatic gun can fire is – with some exceptions – a function of how fast the shooter can pull the trigger and maintain that speed. The speed of a machine gun’s discharge is more a function of how well the gun is made.

Nevertheless, some gun control advocates maintain that no reasonable citizen should have a need for a fully automatic or a semi-automatic gun. Opponents, however, say this stance relies on twisted semantics a misunderstanding of how a wide variety of guns operate.

Things start to get murky when the subject turns to semi-automatic guns. Generally speaking, the term “assault weapon” applies to semi-automatic guns with special features (although the definition changes).

Consider a semi-automatic pistol. Every time the trigger of a semi-automatic pistol is pulled, a bullet is fired, and a new cartridge is chambered automatically. (A cartridge is not a synonym for a bullet. A bullet is a projectile within a cartridge, which also includes a case, primer and powder.) Semi-automatic pistols use the energy from the gun’s recoil or from gases produced when it’s fired to power the rechambering action.

Revolvers, on the other hand, employ a different means to rechamber bullets. A revolver has multiple chambers for bullets. As the trigger is pulled, the bullet leaves one chamber and the cylinder revolves, lining up the bullet in the next chamber.

Revolvers also can only fire one bullet per trigger pull. But they are not classified as semi-automatic guns, even though they practically function in a similar fashion.

Yet some gun control advocates are pushing to ban all semi-automatic guns. There’s little talk of banning revolvers, although that may be because revolvers generally can only hold five or six bullets at a time.

Back to the AR-15. Its name and tortured history have contributed to confusion over how it operates.

Today, the AR-15 is a style of a rifle – solely a semi-automatic rifle. The “AR” comes from the name of the gun’s original manufacturer, Armalite, Inc. It does not stand for assault rifle or automatic rifle. (It’s popularity in the United States, however, has led some people to say the “AR” should stand for “America’s Rifle.”)

Unless it is modified with add-ons (like the bump stock), an AR-15 fires one bullet per trigger pull. It cannot spray bullets by holding down the trigger. (Bump stocks don’t make semi-automatic guns automatic. You still need to pull the trigger each time in order to make the gun fire. Bump stocks do, however, greatly increase the rate of fire.)

But you’d be forgiven if you thought it was a machine gun, and not just because of confusion over the origins of the “AR” in its name.

Armalite, then based in Costa Mesa, originally designed the AR-15 in the 1950s as a selective fire rifle to be sold to the U.S. military. The company, however, sold the design and the rights to the name to the well-known gun manufacturer Colt.

In the 1960s, the U.S. military chose Colt to make selective fire rifles for its troops in Vietnam. Colt used the design of the original AR-15 to produce these rifles, which were renamed the M16.

Colt later made a civilian version of the M16 that was semi-automatic and called that the AR-15. When Colt’s patent on the design expired in the late 1970s, other manufacturers started making their own versions of the AR-15 – hence why it’s known today as a style of rifle, not a specific make or brand.

But regardless of the manufacturer, AR-15s and M16s typically look pretty similar. They do not operate in the same way, however. AR-15s are only semi-automatics. They can only discharge one bullet per trig pull. M16s, on the other hand, are selective fire.

As the U.S. Supreme Court once described in the 1994 gun-rights case Staples v. the United State, “The AR-15 is the civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle, and is, unless modified, a semiautomatic weapon. The M-16, in contrast, is a selective fire rifle that allows the operator, by rotating a selector switch, to choose semiautomatic or automatic fire.”

But some AR-15s, as semi-automatic guns, do meet the general definition of an assault weapon, which has made them the target of bans, both federally and in California.

Most of us are familiar with the 10-year federal assault weapons ban enacted under President Clinton in 1994, which outlawed AR-15s and other similar semi-automatic rifles with specific features. (AR-15s categorically have never been banned at either the state or federal level. The bans have always been on AR-15s with specific features. Also, non-compliant guns existing out in the community were grandfathered in.) Ironically, the ban on AR-15s appears to have spurred Americans to purchase the weapon in droves after it lapsed under President George W. Bush in 2004.

California, however, has maintained its own assault weapons ban, originally enacted in 1989 and subsequently tweaked and expanded in the years after.

Today, an AR-15 may be legal in California under a couple of different conditions, so long as any version of the rifle is 30 inches or longer and doesn’t feature a “flash suppressor” (which reduces the visibility of a discharging barrel’s light signatur

The Golden State began by first outlawing specific makes of guns, then in 1999 switched to banning guns based on their characteristics – or more specifically a collection of their characteristics.

Today, an AR-15 may be legal in California under a couple of different conditions, so long as any version of the rifle is 30 inches or longer and doesn’t feature a “flash suppressor” (which reduces the visibility of a discharging barrel’s light signature).

Under one set of conditions, an AR-15 may be legal if its magazine is “fixed,” meaning the gun has to essentially be disassembled in order for it to be reloaded.

If your AR-15 has a fixed magazine, that’s basically the only limitation it needs to have (in addition to being at least 30 inches long without a flash suppressor). Generally, California requires the magazines of all guns to be limited to 10 or fewer bullets.

If, however, you want an AR-15 with a detachable – and therefore quicker to reload – magazine, you have to remove some additional features from the rifle.

With a detachable magazine, California-legal AR-15s may not have pistol grips (which make guns more comfortable to use) or folding or telescoping shoulder stocks (which also make guns more comfortable and easier to use).  That’s in addition to no flash suppressors and no rifles shorter than 30 inches.

Taken together, you can see the logic of what legislators were trying to accomplish with California’s assault weapons ban. By requiring that AR-15s be at least 30 inches long, lawmakers were trying to make them harder to conceal. By banning flash suppressors, they were trying to make it easier to spot shooters. By restricting magazine capacity, they were trying to force shooters to reload often.

And by making AR-15 owners choose between a fixed magazine and comfortable accessories or a detachable magazine and no comforts, they were trying to make the use (and reloading) of the gun as cumbersome as possible.

All of that makes sense on paper. Presumably, you’re more likely to stop a mass shooting if the shooter can’t conceal him or herself, if he or she has to reload often or if the gun being used is awkward to hold and fire. Those would all seem to be helpful in preventing mass shootings.

But as the Los Angeles-based Second Amendment lawyer Kostas Moros pointed out, “The people who pass these laws don’t know anything about guns.” In reality, he said, California’s assault weapons ban has done very little other than to make the ownership of an AR-15 “a pain in the ass” for law abiding citizens in the Golden State.

“The idea that this is going to stop a criminal is very silly,” he said.

Gun historian Ashley Hlebinsky, who now works as a museum consultant and as the executive director of the University of Wyoming’s Firearms Research Center, advised Capitol Weekly on how to accurately describe the AR-15 and its mechanics and history. She also introduced us to two women who arranged for us to test fire several versions of the AR-15 as well as an actual machine gun.

Lara Smith is a Sacramento-area lawyer and the national spokeswoman for the Liberal Gun Club, which describes its mission as providing “a pro-Second Amendment voice for left-of-center gun owners.” From California, Smith and her husband Ed, a Marine Corps veteran, brought two California-complaint AR-15s to Las Vegas: one with a fixed magazine and one with a detachable magazine.

In Las Vegas, we met the Smiths at The Range 702, a shooting range just off the Strip, where another one of Hlebinsky’s associates, Kris Chanski, is the chief operating officer. (The range is about a 10-minute drive from the site of the October 2017 mass shooting on the Strip.)

Chanski provided for us an M4 machine gun that she has special permit to operate (it’s primarily used by tourists) and introduced us to range’s safety officer, Jeffrey Basinga, who brought along his non-California-legal AR-15.

Also joining us for the shooting exercise was Las Vegas local Michael Sodini, the CEO and chairman of the board of Walk the Talk America, a nonprofit dedicated to reducing suicides by improving the availability of mental health care to gun owners.

And by making AR-15 owners choose between a fixed magazine and comfortable accessories or a detachable magazine and no comforts, [lawmakers] were trying to make the use (and reloading) of the gun as cumbersome as possible.

At the range, it was a decidedly – and unapologetically – a pro-gun crew of advisors, although not a stereotypical one and certainly not one that felt much affinity to the National Rifle Association.

“The NRA is pandering to a small amount of people with a lot of money,” Sodini said. “We’re not a monolith,” agreed Lara Smith, speaking of the pro-gun community.

Hlebinsky, the gun historian, didn’t attend the exercise, but suggested beforehand that in addition just firing different versions of the AR-15 that we also attempt to measure the speed with which different AR-15s can be reloaded and how accurate each version is at hitting a target.

In The Range 702’s bright, cheery lobby, accented by the range’s blue and lime green colors, Chanski handed out to our crew plastic safety glasses and shooting earmuffs for each of us to wear when we headed back to our shooting range. Ed Smith hoisted a large, hard case; Basinga, the range safety officer, carried a black, soft one.

“Keep your eyes and ears on at all times,” Chanski said.

Inside the concrete confines of the range, Ed Smith and Basinga began unloading the guns and comparing their features.

The Smiths had brought what’s known as two “lower receivers” but only one “upper receiver.” The lower receiver is the part of the rifle that has a registration number; it includes the mechanism to fire the gun, the magazine to hold the bullets and the grip. The upper receiver is the barrel. The Smiths planned to swap the barrel between their two different California-legal AR-15s.

But first Ed Smith and Basinga pointed out the differences between the three rifles. Basinga’s non-California-legal rifle was a tan color with a telescoping shoulder stock and a pistol grip at the trigger, as well as a vertical forward grip near the end of the barrel.

Top: A California-legal AR-15 Bottom: A non-California legal AR-1

They explained that with the telescoping shoulder stock, Basinga’s non-California-legal rifle could be adjusted to comfortably fit whoever was shooting it. For shorter people with shorter arms (like this reporter), the stock could be brought in, allowing the shooter to square his or her shoulder with the rifle for better control. The pistol grip, meanwhile, allowed the shooter to hold the rifle firmly, not only within the hand but also against the body.

The Smiths’ California-legal rifles were noticeably different, especially when held next to Basinga’s. The one with a detachable magazine had an immovable shoulder stock, which would make it difficult for a short-armed shooter to fire, as well as a “paddle” grip at the trigger, which literally prevents a shooter from wrapping his or her hand around the handle of the gun.

Paddle grips are sometimes known as “fin” grips because they look like the fin of a dolphin. At the back of the handle, a long, wide piece of plastic extends like a fin, keeping your thumb on one side of the handle, away from the tips of your other fingers curling around the front.

The Smiths’ other California-legal AR-15 also had a wonky grip, known as a “featureless” grip. Featureless grips don’t have a fin, but are wide and angled, forcing the web of the shooter’s hand to be higher than the trigger, which, in turn, makes the shooter extend his or her trigger further than would be required with a pistol grip.

In theory, featureless grips make you shoot slower. Our gun experts disagree.

“What it actually does is make the gun harder to control,” Lara Smith said.

But the most important feature of the second California-legal AR-15 was its fixed magazine. Once a magazine is slotted into this gun, it can’t be easily removed.

(The Smiths’ lower receiver with the featureless grip typically does not have a fixed magazine. Ed Smith used a tool to change the receiver’s magazine release for demonstration purposes. With a fixed magazine, as mentioned before, an AR-15 does not require a featureless grip under California law. Therefore, the second California-legal AR-15 used in our demonstration is actually slightly more restrictive than what’s permitted under California law.)

Grabbing a loose bullet, Ed Smith poked a tiny button on to the side of the magazine to make it release. Lara Smith said there are special tools for releasing fixed magazines like this, but her husband said any sharp, pointy object can do the trick.

“That’s so stupid,” Chanski said as she watched Ed Smith demonstrate how to release the fixed magazine. A Las Vegas resident, Chanski had never seen a California-legal fixed magazine in action before. “I just know California-compliant guns are dumb,” she said, shaking her head again. “That’s as far as my education goes.”

“Isn’t this stuff absolutely nuts?” Lara Smith said.

“The features you’ve shown me all make the gun less safe,” Chanski replied.

And “harder to control,” Ed Smith added. But we’d soon see about that.

The first AR-15 we shot was Basinga’s non-California-legal one. It was heavy, but fit comfortably against the body, thanks to the telescoping shoulder stock and the simple handles, one at the trigger, the other near the end of the barrel. Unlike the Smiths’ rifles, it sported a fancy optical sight for aiming at the target. Squeezing the trigger took little finger pressure.

The sound of that first shot was surprisingly loud in the concrete room, even with the earmuffs. The recoil was strong, causing the rifle to jump within the hands. The smell of gunpowder appeared suddenly, and a brass casing clinked onto the floor.

The rifle was undeniably powerful, its weight unfamiliar, working different muscles than those you’d use at a keyboard. But the grips made it easy to hold the rifle relatively steady. Slowly, 20 rounds were fired at a paper target hanging seven yards down the lane, each followed by loud, concussive blasts that gradually became less shocking.

When the magazine was empty, Basinga threw a switch to retract the target, which revealed most of the 20 shots hit the lower center, a good “grouping,” showing relatively decent control, even for a novice.

Next, we shot the Smiths’ California-legal AR-15 with the detachable magazine and the paddle fin grip. After handling the non-California-legal rifle, this one felt awkward. The paddle grip made it hard to get a secure hold on the rifle, which was just exacerbated by the lack of a forward grip, also banned in California.

The gun’s fixed shoulder stock also made it difficult to hold the rifle securely, and hindered the ability to use its “iron sights,” a front sight post and rear sight circle along the barrel that you try to line up when aiming at a target. As mandated by California law, the magazine for this rifle was half the size of the other’s, containing only 10 bullets.

The experience of firing this AR-15 – the sound, the recoil, the amount of finger pressure required, the power of the weapon – was all the same as before. But the awkward configuration made the experience quickly tiresome, and, once the 10 rounds were spent, we found the results were different.

When Basinga retracted the target, we saw the bullet holes were spread out randomly across the length of the paper, with three holes on the very bottom edge of the page.

That obviously showed less control over the rifle.

“This is a hard gun to shoot,” Lara Smith said. “I never shoot this.”

The experience of firing this AR-15 – the sound, the recoil, the amount of finger pressure required, the power of the weapon – was all the same as before. But the awkward configuration made the experience quickly tiresome, and, once the 10 rounds were spent, we found the results were different.

The last AR-15 was the Smiths’ California-legal rifle with the fixed magazine and the featureless grip. As with the first California-legal rifle, slotting the 10-round magazine took a couple of tries. That’s because 10-round magazines are short, making them hard to hold securely in your hand while jamming them upwards into the gun. It’s just easier to grip and slot a longer, 20 or 30-round magazine.

But other than that, holding this second California-legal AR-15 was generally easier, more akin to the experience of handling the non-California-legal one. That seemed to be due to the featureless grip, which, while noticeably stretching your hand, allowed for securer hold.

And the results on the paper target seemed to bear that out: All 10 shots were clustered in the center, showing again decent control, even with the same iron sights.

Our test, while far from scientific or even all that precise, showed that in the hands of a novice one version of a California-legal AR-15 could reasonably duplicate the targeting of a non-California-legal one. The other one, not so much.

Of course, when it comes to mass shootings, some are less worried about novices and more worried about experienced, trained shooters. So we had Basinga, a Navy vet and the range’s safety officer and head of its training program, time how quickly he could reload all three versions of the AR-15 and how accurately he could shoot each one.

Basinga took two stabs at reloading all three rifles. For this exercise, he used a shot timer attached to his belt. A shot timer, used in shooting competitions, records the time between a shot is fired. So, what Basinga would do is load a magazine with one bullet into the rifle, start the timer, squeeze off one shot, detach the magazine, slot a new one and fire a second shot.

That process would tell us how quickly an experienced gun user like Basinga could reload each version of the AR-15.

Unsurprisingly, Basinga was able to reload the non-California-legal AR-15 (his own, personal gun) the fastest, doing so in about 4.9 and 4.6 seconds. The Smiths’ California-legal AR-15 with the detachable magazine and the paddle fin grip he was able to reload in about 5.3 and 6.1 seconds.

The California-legal AR-15 with the fixed magazine and the featureless grip took the longest for Basinga to reload. He did that in about 13.8 and 10.4 seconds.

The difference between his best time and his worst was about 9.2 seconds. Is that a lot? Well, Robert Card, who killed 18 people at two locations in a mass shooting in late October in Lewiston, Maine, apparently experienced a gun jam for several seconds while shooting up a bowling alley – and nobody was able to stop him during that time.

Next, Basinga shot at a target three times with each version of the AR-15. Basinga didn’t rush his shots, but he didn’t spend a lot time sighting each one either. Surprisingly, his best grouping was with the Smiths’ California-legal AR-15 with the detachable magazine and the paddle fin grip and the iron sights. He shot better with that awkward rifle than he did his own, the non-California-legal AR-15 with the optical sight.

His worst performance was with the California-legal AR-15 with the fixed magazine and the featureless grip. His first two shots were reasonably grouped, but he felt the rifle slip on him on the third and final shot.

“That was all me,” Basinga admitted sheepishly.

Aside from the handle and the magazine configurations, the physical experience of shooting the three versions of the AR-15 were all about the same. One pull of the trigger fired one bullet. Each pull was loud, each recoil strong. But no matter how awkward the grip, the shooter felt a certain amount of control over the gun, regardless of its obvious (and lethal) power.

After all, the shooter could collect him or herself between each pull of the trigger.

That wasn’t the case when Chanski brought out her M4 machine gun.

In order to obtain a permit for the M4, Chanski said she had to literally give up certain legal rights, allowing the federal government to search her home at any time, without a warrant, in exchange for owning such a powerful gun.

Chanski agreed to this stringent oversight so that her business, The Range 702, would have the ability to rent out a real machine gun to tourists, a sizable number of whom come to Las Vegas seeking the thrill of shooting all manner of guns.

But Chanski said getting approved for the gun wasn’t easy. A lot of background checks and red tape were involved. In other words, machine guns are not easy to obtain; they’re effectively out of reach for most ordinary people.

“You can’t just walk in and buy one of those,” said Sodini, of the Walk the Talk America nonprofit.

Chanski wanted Capitol Weekly to have a chance to fire a machine gun to put the experience of shooting an AR-15 in context. Critics have called AR-15 “bullet hoses,” the “civilian versions of military assault weapons,” with “virtually no significant differences between them.”

It’s true that an M4 and other selective fire assault rifles can fire in semi-automatic mode, like an AR-15. But the experience of shooting Chanski’s M4 in fully automatic mode was not at all similar to shooting the three AR-15.

Capitol Weekly reporter Brian Joseph firing an M4 rifle.

A single pull of the trigger of the M4 unleashed multiple bullets, each firing with the same force as the last, making it virtually impossible to hold the barrel steady. A single shot of the AR-15 felt powerful. Firing multiple shots on a single trigger pull of the M4 trigger felt overwhelming – immediately. There was no sense of control, almost like hydroplaning in a car.

The bullets flew out of the M4 so fast the 20-round magazine was empty after four trigger pulls (“bursts”). It was both intimidating and an unexpected adrenaline rush.

The others in the group were offered a chance to fire the M4 as well. The Smiths eagerly accepted. The experience was memorable.

“It’s super fun, it’s super expensive and its damn scary,” Lara Smith said.

For some gun enthusiasts, firing a machine gun is like driving an exotic car, a novelty unmoored from real life.

“I would never use that feature (fully automatic firing) out in the real world,” Basinga said.

After we were done shooting, everyone involved gathered around a high-top table in The Range 702 lobby and talked for quite a while, about shooting guns and gun-control policies and politics.

It was hardly a stereotypical discussion with Second Amendment proponents. A lot of the talk revolved around law changes our shooting advisors would like to see – changes that would prevent certain people from owning guns.

For example, Chanski told a story about customer at the shooting range who tried to kill himself with one of the guns he had brought. Chanski said she and the shooting range staff had taken the guns away from him and called the police. But the police said the range had to give the man his guns back; they were his property. The range did, and the man went home and killed himself.

Capitol Weekly reporter Brian Joseph operating a California-legal AR-15

Nobody at the table thought that right.

“We want less people to die,” Lara Smith said.

A common lament during that conversation was that most legislators aren’t gun people, which they felt led nonsensical gun laws.

“Most people aren’t going to take the time to do what you did today,” said Sodini, the nonprofit CEO, of Capitol Weekly’s test firing exercise.

Is that true? Do many or most policymakers not really have hands-on experience with firearms? From the beginning, Hlebinsky encouraged us to aggressively seek out perspectives from both sides of the aisle.

So, Capitol Weekly reached out to the offices of four legislators who have authored gun control bills (Sens. Anthony Portantino and Catherine Blakespear and Assemblymembers Jesse Gabriel and Kevin McCarty) as well as Gov. Newsom’s office to talk not only about how they’ve developed their ideas on gun control but specifically whether they’ve actually test fired any guns.

Through representatives, Newsom and Blakespear declined to be interviewed, although both offices provided us with links to interviews and the governor’s website reflecting what they said was the politicians’ views on gun control matters.

Newsom’s aide, Daniel Villaseñor, initially referred us to the Attorney General’s office, saying “they would be more appropriate to respond here.” When we pointed out that Newsom himself is trying to take California’s gun control laws nationwide, Villaseñor provided us with some links, including to an interview Newsom had with Sean Hannity, and didn’t respond when we asked a third time for an interview with the governor.

That was two days after Newsom tweeted, “Extremist judges have overturned CA’s gun law and are insisting that guns be allowed at our playgrounds, libraries, and hospitals.


“This is exactly why we need to pass a US Constitutional Amendment that will put in place common sense reforms like:

“- Universal background checks

“- A ban on assault weapons

“- Raising the age to purchase a gun to 21

“Until then, judges across the country will continue to rip away the progress we have made – leaving nothing but carnage behind them. It’s sickening.”

McCarty initially agreed to talk with Capitol Weekly, then his staff said he had to reschedule. Later, an aide said he didn’t have time to talk to us.

So, in the end, only Portantino and Gabriel spoke to us – perhaps because both said they have hands-on experience firing automatic and semi-automatic guns.

Gabriel said he’s fired guns with his father-in-law, a gun enthusiast, in Jacksonville, Fla.

“It’s been a helpful experience for me,” the assemblymember said, giving him nuance on the issue and helping him to better understand gun culture.

Gabriel said he didn’t know how many lawmakers in Sacramento have had similar experiences firing guns, but he said he does know many legislators have experienced “the other side of the equation,” the impact of gun violence, which the assemblyman said preventing is a top priority for him.

“Nobody is safe,” he said.

That’s why he said he supports California’s gun control laws, even if they practically only make a small, incremental difference.

“There is no magic solution to gun violence,” he said, noting that it’s not like there’s one law that will solve everything. Gabriel said he’d only oppose a gun control law if someone could affirmatively show him that the law it’s unhelpful.

Otherwise, he believes, “Every little bit helps.”

Sen. Anthony Portantino, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel

Sen. Anthony Portantino, Gov. Gavin Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta, Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel. Photo from YouTube.

Portantino, on the other hand, was adamant that he believed California’s gun control laws are “not strong enough.”

The senator said he fired semi-automatic and automatic weapons at the California Highway Patrol Academy so he could better understand what he was regulating. “It allows me to speak with more authority on the nuances of the issue,” Portantino said of the shooting experience, which he said convinced them that such guns are “brutal weapons.”

“They’re weapons of war,” Portantino said, adding that he sees no need for semi-automatic or automatic guns to be in the hands of civilians as they are clearly “offensive” weapons, not weapons for home defense.

“They’re not used for hunting,” he said. “They’re violent weapons used to kill people.” The senator said he believes the right thing to do is keep the most “intense” weapons off the streets.

In Portantino view, the gun control debate comes down to an “age-old” difference of opinion between one group of people who believe that “unfettered access” to weapons makes Americans safer while another group believes proliferation of gun in private hands makes citizens less safe.

The senator made clear he falls squarely in the latter group. But he also encouraged every legislator in Sacramento to take the time to actually shoot these guns to better understand them.

“I think it’s important for all of us to know as much as possible,” he said.

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