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In move to 'enhance public safety,' Gov. Jerry Brown signs gun-control proposals into law

Gov. Jerry Brown on Friday signed six gun-control bills into law, including new restrictions on semiautomatic rifles and a requirement that ammunition purchasers undergo background checks, saying they will help “enhance public safety” in California. 

The governor vetoed five other measures, including an expansion of the use of restraining orders to take guns from people deemed to be dangerous. 

The governor’s action comes one day after the Legislature approved a dozen gun-control bills that were introduced in response to the December mass shooting in San Bernardino that killed 14 people. The bills gained legislative momentum after last month’s massacre in Orlando that claimed 49 lives. 

“My goal in signing these bills is to enhance public safety by tightening our existing laws in a responsible and focused manner, while protecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners,” Brown wrote in a signing message Friday.

The action appeared to be a subtle shift for Brown, whose complicated record on gun control has been marked by skepticism about whether many proposals increase public safety without infringing on the rights of law-abiding gun owners.

At a time when mass shootings are occurring with escalating frequency, it appears Brown’s pragmatic side and his Jesuit training has made him more open to efforts to control firearms, according to Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at Cal State L.A.

The National Rifle Assn. Institute for Legislative Action accused the governor of exploiting the terrorist attacks for political gain.

“Gov. Jerry Brown today signed a draconian gun control package that turns California’s law-abiding gun owners into second-class citizens,” said Amy Hunter, California spokesperson for the group. “The governor and Legislature exploited a terrorist attack to push these measures through even though the state’s already restrictive laws did nothing to stop the attack in San Bernardino.”

The bills signed by Brown include a ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles equipped with so-called “bullet buttons” that allow the removal and replacement of magazines.

In 2013, Brown, a gun owner who hunted as a younger man, vetoed several gun control bills including one that would have outlawed the sale of semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines, including those with bullet button features.

“I don't believe that this bill’s blanket ban on semiautomatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners’ rights,” Brown said at the time.

Administration officials said Friday that the earlier version was so broad as to have expanded California’s definition of an assault weapon. The bill he signed Friday, they said, was more precisely focused on the issue of how the ammunition magazines are quickly changed out.

The decision to sign this proposal was welcomed by one of its authors, Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael). 

“Military assault weapons have no place on our streets,” he said.

Brown’s office noted that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom has qualified a more expansive gun control measure for the November ballot.

“The governor took swift action today and voters will have a chance to go even further in November, if they choose, with the lieutenant governor’s initiative,” said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown.

Newsom, who had criticized the Legislature’s proposals as falling short of his proposed initiative, cast the governor’s actions as a start of reform that his ballot measure would complete.

“Today’s steps in the right direction will grow into a giant leap forward for public safety if voters pass the Safety for All initiative to keep guns and ammo out of the wrong hands,” Newsom said.

Provisions of the initiative that are not covered by the signed bills include a process for getting felons to relinquish firearms, a requirement to report lost or stolen guns and a mandate that California share data on prohibited persons with federal databases.

Although gun control advocates including Nick Wilcox did not get everything they wanted, they saw the governor’s action as a significant milestone in the movement to limit firearms in California.

“We consider this an enormous step forward,” said Wilcox, legislative advocate for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and the father of a woman killed by a mentally ill gunman. “The fact that the governor signed six of the bills is a historic event.”

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Meanwhile, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the gun industry, said the bills would “affect law-abiding Californians while doing nothing to stop the criminal misuse of firearms.”

When asked if it would challenge the new laws in court, a spokesman for the group said it is exploring all options.

“By acting within 24 hours after being sent these bills, and not allowing the public to voice their opinions in order to depart for his European vacation, the governor compounded the miscarriage of legislative process and procedure while demonstrating  disdain for Californians who now face laws that clearly infringe on their constitutional rights,” the group said in a statement.

Among the bills fought hardest by the National Rifle Assn. was a measure by state Senate Leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) requiring those who buy bullets in California to show an ID card and have their name checked against a list of felons and others prohibited from owning firearms.

The NRA also opposed a bill by Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Oakland) that outlaws the possession of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

“These so-called ‘high-capacity magazines’ are not for target shooting or hunting,” Hancock said after her bill was signed. “Their sole purpose is to kill as many people as possible in the shortest period of time.”

Brown also signed bills restricting the loaning of guns without background checks to close family members, and another increasing penalties for filing false reports of firearms being stolen.

Vetoes included a bill that would have allowed co-workers, mental health workers and school officials to petition the court for a “gun violence restraining order” for people judged a danger to themselves and others. Such orders would allow guns to be confiscated for a year.

In vetoing the bill, Brown wrote that he had agreed last year to approve a law allowing family members and law enforcement to petition the courts for restraining orders.

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"That law took effect on Jan.1, 2016, so at this point it would be premature to enact a further expansion," he said.

Another bill that Brown vetoed would have put a measure on the November ballot to make all gun thefts a felony, but he noted that provision already exists in the Newsom initiative.

“While I appreciate the authors’ intent in striving to enhance public safety, I feel that the objective is better attained by having the measure appear before the voters only once,” Brown wrote in his veto message.

Other bills the governor vetoed would have required stolen or lost guns to be reported within five days, limited Californians to the purchase of one rifle or shotgun per month and required those who make guns at home to register them with the state and get a serial number so the weapons can be tracked.

On rejecting the bill requiring reporting of stolen guns, Brown noted he had vetoed similar bills twice before.

“I continue to believe that responsible people report the loss or theft of a firearm and irresponsible people do not: It is not likely that this bill would change that,” he wrote in his veto message.

Times staff writer John Myers contributed to this article.

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Follow @mcgreevy99 on Twitter

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