Gov. Jerry Brown's decision to ban the open carrying of handguns puts California squarely against the national tide at a time when many other states have acted to ease gun laws.
Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D) is the author of the open carry ban, signed this week by Gov. Jerry Brown, that makes it a misdemeanor to carry an exposed and unloaded gun in public or in vehicles.
In announcing that he had signed the bill Monday, Governor Brown – a Democrat who owns three guns – said he was acting upon the advice of law-enforcement officials, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca.
"For law enforcement officers and community members, any type of weapon being carried, openly or concealed, could appear as a threat to their well-being and is regarded as a public safety threat," said Sheriff Baca in a statement.
That rationale puts the California ban at the center of the national debate on the links between gun laws and public safety.
Forty-two states allow the open carrying of guns in public. California Assembly Bill 144, by contrast, carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine for anyone who carries a weapon openly in public, though hunters, peace officers, and gun-show attendees are exempt. It takes effect Jan. 1.
But do stronger gun-control laws make a society safer – as Baca suggests – or less safe? It is not clear from statistics whether gun control has lessened crime in the states that have implemented stronger laws, say critics.
"These are not going to reduce crime or gun violence … no others have done that and there are no statistics to show it," says Richard Mack, former sheriff of Graham County in Arizona and a long-time crusader for individual rights. Mack was one of seven US sheriffs who sued the federal government all the way to the Supreme Court in 1994 challenging the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.
"We have a long history of pretending that gun control in America is going to help us and it really hasn't," he says, citing statistics in Vermont, Alaska, Arizona and Wyoming that he says are unchanged by looser laws. "I am sure they are going to keep trying stupid laws until someone realizes they don't work and maybe we ought to try following the Constitution."
Others disagree, saying that looser gun laws lead to "a kind of arms race." "Every attempt to increase the firepower of law-abiding citizens increases the firepower of criminals, leading law-abiding citizens to increase their firepower from a handgun beside the bed to a handgun on the hip," adds Joel Jacobsen, assistant attorney general, criminal appeals division for New Mexico.
"More generally, I think this goes to the really basic question whether law enforcement should be a government function or an individual responsibility," he adds. "The whole point of carrying a gun is to be able to use it, after all. It's not useful as a deterrent otherwise. So the arguments in favor of openly carrying guns on our streets are arguments in favor of using them in our streets."
Some who voted against the ban before Brown signed it provided support for this viewpoint. They noted that the governor recently made counties responsible for some criminals who in the past would have been sent to state prisons.
"The government's responsibility to provide for public safety is faltering," said Assemblyman Jim Nielsen (R) in a statement, "and now we're impeding honest, law-abiding citizens from being able to exercise their constitutional rights to protect themselves and their families?"
Brown signed another bill relating to guns, AB 809, requiring the state to keep records of rifle sales beginning in January 2014. Both signings were praised by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence 's California chapter,
"By prohibiting the open carry of guns, we can now take our families to the park or out to eat without the worry of getting shot by some untrained, unscreened, self-appointed vigilante," said President Dallas Stout to the Associated Press.