As California tries to crack down on crime, it secured a sizable victory for its strict gun control laws on Tuesday.

That’s when a federal appeals court reinstated California’s bans on the sale and possession of high-capacity magazines that can funnel more than 10 rounds of ammunition into a single firearm. The 7-4 ruling from the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals — which gun rights activists plan to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court — overturns a prior ruling from U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez that declared California’s large-capacity magazine ban unconstitutional. It also suggests that the appeals court will likely uphold the Golden State’s ban on assault weapons, which Benitez deemed unconstitutional in a controversial June ruling that likened an AR-15 rifle to a Swiss Army knife.

Also Tuesday, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to ban ghost guns, untraceable firearms built from components bought online or produced by a 3D printer. A recent New York Times investigation found that ghost guns accounted for a whopping 25% to 50% of firearms recovered at crime scenes in Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego and San Francisco in the past 18 months.

The gun crackdown comes amid a surge in smash-and-grab robberies that’s prompted Gov. Gavin Newsom and local leaders to call for tougher measures to combat organized crime. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin — who’s facing a recall election in June — plans to charge nine people who ransacked a series of San Francisco stores with felony looting, though experts say that particular charge could pose significant legal hurdles. And following Oakland’s 118th homicide of the year, Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong vowed Tuesday to arrest the perpetrators.

But one of the most violent places in California isn’t a big city. It’s Kern County, population 900,000, in the southernmost band of the Central Valley. Since 2016, it’s had the highest homicide rate of any California county. And last year, about one out of every 8,000 of its residents was murdered. CalMatters’ Nigel Duara takes a closer look at what’s going on.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Monday, California had 4,806,510 confirmed cases (+0.1% from previous day) and 73,712 deaths (+0.1% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

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1. California prison practices in spotlight

A correctional officer keeps watch over a prisoner in an undisclosed California medical facility near San Francisco on May 18, 2021. AP Photo/Noah Berger
A correctional officer keeps watch over a prisoner in an undisclosed medical facility near San Francisco on May 18, 2010. Photo by Noah Berger, AP Photo

In other criminal justice news, California could move dozens of permanently medically incapacitated inmates from nursing homes back to state prisons — a move it says is necessary to comply with new federal rules for nursing home licensing, the Associated Press reports. Under the new state policy, only inmates connected to ventilators would be eligible for medical parole — which advocates say could force about 70 of the 210 inmates currently approved for medical parole back behind bars. But the feds say California could avoid such a drastic move by placing the inmates in nursing homes that aren’t federally regulated. When state lawmakers return to Sacramento in January, they will consider a bill that would make it easier to house incapacitated inmates in community health care facilities.

California’s approach to the death penalty has also come under scrutiny, with U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria of San Francisco arguing in a recent ruling that the state is essentially “flushing massive amounts of taxpayer money down the toilet” by continuing to litigate death penalty sentences despite Newsom’s moratorium on executions. Since it’s extremely unlikely that California will execute anyone in the near future, Chhabria wrote, the state should consider resentencing some Death Row inmates to life in prison — a move that could save taxpayers $170 million annually.

2. Concerns multiply over school finances

Alisal Elementary School first grade instructor Erin Salcido, center, teaches class on March 4, 2021, in Pleasanton. Teachers and students follow California mask rules. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group
Alisal Elementary School first grade instructor Erin Salcido teaches class on March 4, 2021, in Pleasanton. Photo by Aric Crabb, Bay Area News Group

One of the biggest challenges that state lawmakers will face when they return to Sacramento in January: figuring out how to keep schools from falling off a financial cliff. That was made evident in a Tuesday legislative hearing, during which education experts told lawmakers that two straight years of massive budget surpluses won’t be enough for most school districts to offset financial losses partly caused by declining enrollment and surging chronic absenteeism amid the pandemic. But the problem goes beyond COVID-19: California’s birth rate has been declining for years, resulting in fewer kids attending public schools — and therefore less money for schools, whose funding is partially based on enrollment and attendance numbers. The implication: Lawmakers may have to change how public schools are funded. 

Meanwhile, how school districts are spending a sizable portion of their budget remains unclear. A whopping 76% of school districts either failed to report employee salary data in 2020 or returned non-compliant data, according to a Tuesday report from State Controller Betty Yee. Yet the budget situation at San Francisco Unified is so dire that California recently hired a fiscal consultant to intervene. And on Monday, the California Department of Education gave the Alameda County Office of Education the green light to closely monitor Oakland Unified’s finances and hiring practices over concerns that it won’t be able to balance its budget.

3. Could GOP gain influence post-redistricting?

An election and redistricting illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock
Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

What would help Republicans gain relevance in a California Legislature so dominated by Democrats that not a single GOP vote is needed to pass tax increases or put constitutional amendments on the ballot? Flipping at least seven seats in the Assembly and five in the state Senate, CalMatters’ Sameea Kamal and Jeremia Kimelman report. That could conceivably happen in next year’s election — which will be the first to use new district boundaries that an independent commission is rushing to finalize before Christmas. But while redistricting could determine California’s shade of blue, it won’t change the fact that it’s a blue state, experts say. It’s a different story in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans only need to flip five seats nationwide to take control; California may have inadvertently helped their cause by losing a House seat for the first time in history.

To visualize how the proposed maps could change the partisan makeup of the state Legislature and California’s House delegation, check out the cool graphics in Sameea and Jeremia’s story.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Political reaction to a spate of smash-and-grab retail thefts indicates that crime could be a hot button issue in California’s elections next year.

Police reform starts with meaningful training: California legislators have too often heaped additional training requirements on law enforcement officers without evaluating how effective those requirements actually are, argue Pedro Nava and Janna Sidley of the Little Hoover Commission.

Fortifying California’s climate resilience: Clean energy and backup power at the household and community level can help supply electricity when the grid goes down, write Patrick Murphy and Lee Ann Hill of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy.

Other things worth your time

Mayor Breed appears maskless in another nightclub video. She says she didn’t violate COVID rules. // San Francisco Chronicle

75% of Sacramento City Unified students miss first vaccination deadline. // EdSource

Sheriff Villanueva won’t use county’s COVID test provider over its alleged China ties. // Los Angeles Times

How much tax money does Elon Musk save by moving to Texas? // Bloomberg

‘There’s nothing festive about boarded up storefronts’: Union Square retailers look different this holiday season. // San Francisco Chronicle

No chicken patties for lunch? Southern California schools grapple with supply-chain shortages. // Orange County Register

Can’t cut overtime costs like it did during pandemic’s peak, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department says. // Daily News

South San Francisco launches guaranteed income program. // CalMatters

Why Humboldt County’s housing market is white-hot. // Lost Coast Outpost

Long border waits return after smooth re-opening earlier this month. // San Diego Union-Tribune

Why rural fire departments are turning down neighbors’ calls for help. // San Francisco Chronicle

New map shows 400 toxic sites that could flood in California. // Los Angeles Times

Pismo Beach was once the Clam Capital of the World. Then the clams disappeared. // Los Angeles Times

Everything you need to know about skiing Lake Tahoe this winter. // The San Francisco Chronicle

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...