California: Prisoners Of The State

posted on December 28, 2016
Election day jammed California citizens into an untenable position: Proposition 57 releases violent criminals for budgetary reasons, while Proposition 63 drastically restricts residents’ ability to defend themselves.

This feature appears in the January ‘17 issue of NRA America’s 1st Freedom, one of the official journals of the National Rifle Association.  

Last November, the American electorate stunned the press and coastal elites when we chose Donald Trump as our 45th president. While half the country celebrated the conservative sweep of the federal government—and Trump signaled his desire to represent people of all political stripes to truly make America stronger—citizens in some areas of our nation actually became more vulnerable.

In particular, Californians face a bleaker and more dangerous future with the passage of ill-advised state ballot initiatives—two of which will likely work in tandem to increase crime rates and endanger law-abiding citizens, according to law enforcement officials.

The first—Proposition 57, authored by Gov. Jerry Brown—seems at first blush to reveal a seemingly logical, practical and even kind-hearted change intended to slow the ballooning prison population of “non-violent” offenders by reducing their sentences for good behavior. According to the voter guide, the initiative was endorsed by “California public safety leaders and victims of crime.” The language is nebulous, to be sure, but is worded so as to inspire a typical voter to simply trust those presumably authoritative “leaders” or heart-wrenching “victims” and vote “Yes.” California voters unwittingly tied the hands of law enforcement officials and judges with Prop 57, while simultaneously shackling the right to armed self-defense with Prop 63.

But Prop 57’s most problematic component—the one that has inspired so much ire, even from some who voted for it—is the deceptive use of the legal categorizations of crime. Prop 57 does not change the legal definition of “violent crime.” It does, however, manipulate the voter based on its definitions of “violent” versus “serious,” or “non-violent,” crime.

Therein lies the rub. If you have ever spent time in a jury box, or simply read a cell phone contract, you know that legal language and colloquial language are two very different things. In California, crimes including, but not limited to, human trafficking, sexual assault of a minor and even domestic violence are legally dubbed “serious” as opposed to “violent.” These crimes of a serious nature, therefore, land in the category of “non-violent” by default. So because crimes including exploding a destructive device with intent to cause injury and assault with a deadly weapon of a peace officer are deemed “serious” (not “violent”) according to California law, they fall into the category of non-violent offenses. Prop 57 exploits this loophole in the language of the law and will allow people committing crimes like these to be eligible for early parole. Bottom line, Prop 57 will result in dangerous, violent criminals back out on the street. It’s a verbal shell game, and the voters lose every time.

Many who voted in favor of Prop 57 now feel duped by its manipulative language. One Facebook user who voted for the initiative noted later, “I thought I was informed about this one; everything I read about it said it was focused on rehabilitation for juveniles and nonviolent offenders.”

Dan Dow, district attorney for San Luis Obispo County, explained the post-election concern of many voters. “I’ve heard so many voters who voted for it tell me they are angry because it said ‘non-violent,’” Dow said. “Rape of an unconscious person is obviously violent. Human trafficking a child for sexual purposes is bad enough to be violent because of what is being done to these children. Placing a bomb in a church or a school is clearly violent.” Dow explained that, prior to Prop 57, those definitions didn’t matter, since both categories were considered strikes under the state’s Three Strikes law.

Law enforcement officials’ concerns that Prop 57 will inevitably lead to an increase in crime are well justified. In May 2016, the California Police Chiefs Association assessed the effects of a similar law—Proposition 47, passed in 2014—and noted that crime rates in population centers of more than 100,000 had increased more than 15 percent since its passage. The crime rate in similar population centers elsewhere in the nation ticked up only 1 percent.

“The increase in property crime in the California cities already reporting is the largest year-over-year increase in property crimes since at least 1960,” the group’s press release stated. “The increase in violent crime is the largest year-over-year increase since 1990.” Notably, while advocates of Prop 47 also promised to facilitate rehabilitation programs from the fiscal savings the measure would provide, such programs still have not materialized.

The same will be true of Prop 57, which even the law enforcement community strongly opposed. When asked if he knew of law enforcement officers who supported Prop 57, John Marrs, a retired 25-year veteran of San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department, responded, “Not a single one.”

On the other side of the issue, in an interview with the Mercury News on why California voters should approve Prop 57, Gov. Brown appealed to voters’ humanity by saying, “Why not give some of these people a second chance? Isn’t that human nature? Aren’t redemption and forgiveness what it’s all about? If we take away all of that, the inmates have no hope. We’re throwing them in a cell with no hope.”

Of course, his remarks beg the critical question: What about their victims?

As if the manipulation of the electorate and the skirting of the definition of “violent” crime in the nation’s most populous state wasn’t enough, Californians also passed Proposition 63, which further restricts gun rights by reiterating some of the unconstitutional “Gunmageddon” laws Gov. Brown signed into law in July—and adding a few more for good measure.

C.D. Michel, firearms attorney and president of the California Rifle & Pistol Association, notes that there are only a few differences between Prop 63 and the legislation passed in July 2016. The redundancy of this law highlights the fact that the initiative was written to garner another feather in Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s political cap as opposed to protecting the safety of Californians.

Michel outlined the false premise of the gun control initiatives that California politicians have sold to the public: “The lie that they are trying to tell is that when they passed the state ‘assault weapons’ law, gun violence has gone down. They call it ‘gun violence’ because they can include suicide and accidents. They say, ‘Look how California’s gun violence rate has gone down since about 1990.’” 

“The gun accident rate declined because NRA instructors began aggressively teaching gun safety” Michel says. Because of the skewed definitions used by anti-gun groups, this drop in firearm-related accidents also resulted in a decrease in so-called “gun violence.”

But despite the reduction, these ill-conceived laws will have a damaging effect on both the California firearm retail industry and state law enforcement, as those guilty of assault with a deadly weapon of a peace officer will be eligible for early parole since the crime is not classified as “violent.”

Like law enforcement across the nation, officers in California already face plenty of danger. In October 2016, two Palm Springs officers responded to a domestic disturbance in which 26-year-old convicted felon and self-proclaimed gang member John Felix was “acting crazy,” according to his father. Felix was illegally in possession of a gun and told his family he was going to shoot police. A standoff ensued, and the two responding officers—27-year-old Lesley Zerebny, recently back from maternity leave, and Jose “Gil” Gilbert Vega, a father of eight who was set to retire two months later—were murdered. Their killer had been charged in 2009 with attempted murder, but had pleaded down to assault with a firearm. By keeping the House and Senate and taking back the presidency, American gun owners won a victory that could protect our federal courts for a generation. 

Perhaps the most cumbersome aspect of the new law lies in the ammunition background check provision, which will require the state to build a “massive database of criminal and mental health records,” according to Michel. “They will not be allowed to use NICS, because it is only allowed for gun background checks. So they are going to have to build a redundant NICS. New York state wrestled with this and saw that it was going to cost $100 million, and basically abandoned it.”

In fact, California already holds a criminal records database and a registered firearms database. “Those databases are riddled with errors,” Michel said. “Now they will have to create a database that is much, much bigger and will hold a lot more data, and most of the data will be useless.” He added, “Registering ammo is basically backdoor gun registration, which will be challenged in court.”

In a nutshell, California voters unwittingly tied the hands of law enforcement officials and judges with Prop 57, while simultaneously shackling the right to armed self-defense with Prop 63.

“Public safety professionals have been watching this for years and they are recognizing the [state’s] desire to want to let criminals back on the street again,” Michel says. “So now there is a new dynamic in which police oppose gun control because they see the other side of the coin of softer sentencing.”

There is, however, hope for the future. By keeping the House and Senate and taking back the presidency, American gun owners won a victory that could protect our federal courts for a generation. Now, a PAC known as the Coalition for Civil Liberties, of which the NRA is a supporter, is ready to take legal action to counter California’s dangerous new restrictions.

But until future legal victories can reverse the damage done to California’s freedom, the burden for the near future could, sadly, be carried on the shoulders of unarmed Californians, who will increasingly become victims of serious, and yes, “violent” crime.



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