California gun bill fails on tactical error in Legislature

Gun-control advocates could have had another victory in their very successful California legislative session that ended Thursday if not for a risky move supported by Gov. Gavin Newsom that backfired on a bill to impose new limits on carrying concealed weapons after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down old rules.

The Legislature passed more than a dozen significant bills on gun limits during the session. But the concealed weapons measure failed Thursday after Newsom, Attorney General Rob Bonta and the bill’s other Democratic backers pushed for a two-thirds supermajority required so the new rules could take effect this month, instead of opting for the simple majority that would have made the new law effective in January.

The measure fell just one vote short of the 54 it needed in the 80-member Assembly. And by the time the bill’s backers realized they were short, legislative safeguards enacted by voters meant it was too late to pass the bill with the 41 "aye" votes that were easily in hand.

Sen. Anthony Portantino, who sponsored the bill, said backers were sure they had the necessary votes until retiring Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, a fellow Democrat, defected and voted against it.

"That was the killer," Portantino told The Associated Press over the phone as he waited to board a flight home to Southern California. "I think we had 54 votes — right up until one went south."


O’Donnell responded that Portantino was to blame. He said the senator’s staff "couldn’t answer basic questions about the bill."

"I’m not going to pass something, even on my last day in the Legislature, that may not be constitutional," O’Donnell said.

O’Donnell was one of seven Democrats who joined Republicans in either voting against the bill or withholding their votes. They included Adam Gray and Rudy Salas, both of whom are running for Congress in swing Central Valley districts where a vote for gun control could hurt them.

The failure was a rare defeat for Newsom on gun control, an issue on which he has positioned himself as a national leader as he is being increasingly eyed as a potential presidential candidate. During the year he called for and signed a variety of bills, including measures targeting untraceable "ghost guns," the marketing of firearms to children and allowing people to bring lawsuits over gun violence. That legislation was patterned on a Texas anti-abortion law.

Bonta, who was appointed attorney general by Newsom, was personally working the concealed weapons bill in the Capitol until the end, while Newsom was involved "significantly" in pushing for its passage, Portantino said.

"This was a priority for the governor, a priority for the AG and a priority for me, and all of us were working it throughout the night," Portantino said.

Bonta said in a statement that he is determined "to push this through" the next Legislature. He and Newsom did not respond to questions about the tactical decision to seek the supermajority, and the governor’s office blamed "a small handful (of) Democrats (who) refused to cast a vote at all."

When the Supreme Court issued what Newsom termed a "shameful" decision overturning New York’s concealed carry law and those in other states including California, he and Bonta promised swift action. But New York and other states have been able to act more quickly.

With the bill dead for now, attorney Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, said the organization "is notifying local jurisdictions of their constitutional obligations to process applications quickly. We anticipate some stonewalling and game playing from certain localities hostile to gun ownership. We will see those holdouts in court."

The affiliated gun control advocacy groups Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, both part of Everytown for Gun Safety, asked Newsom to call lawmakers back for a special legislative session to pass the law. But the governor’s office said a similar bill should be the next Legislature’s "first order of business" and Newsom "looks forward to signing an urgency measure as soon as possible."

Portantino said he plans to bring the bill back when a new Legislature is sworn in.

"To come up one vote short is beyond frustrating and to know that one Assemblymember purposely reversed his vote specifically to kill this important public safety measure is reprehensible," he said in a statement. "California is less safe today because of that action and I am committed to bringing this bill back on December 5th when the chief obstructionist won’t be here to block it."

While Portantino can introduce the bill or a revision soon after the November election, lawmakers won’t go back to work in earnest until January. And the new bill will have to go through the usual legislative process, surviving multiple committees and both legislative chambers before it could go to Newsom for his signature.

Even if supporters try again for supermajorities, "it’s going to be a several month effort, which is why it’s so disappointing that we didn’t get it done last night," Portantino said.

About a third of the Legislature will be new when lawmakers next convene, and Portantino said he will wait to gauge intervening court decisions and the new membership before deciding if he needs to change his bill.

If there still aren’t enough votes, he said, "you can always go back to a simple majority." If such a bill passes it would take effect in 2024.