Spurred by outrage over recent mass shootings, California lawmakers on Thursday sent Gov. Jerry Brown an unprecedented package of gun control bills, including a ban on the sale of semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines, background checks for those buying ammunition and new restrictions on homemade firearms.
In the wake of massacres in San Bernardino and Orlando, Fla., the flurry of legislative action once again puts California in the lead among states regulating firearms, and in stark contrast to inaction in the gridlocked Congress, officials said.
“I don’t know how much more blood needs to be spilled in our schools, in our community centers, in public spaces, until the members of Congress act and we can do this nationwide,” Senate President Pro Tem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles) told reporters after the vote. “Until that happens, we will not stop moving forward forcefully to make sure that we protect our families, to protect our children, protect our communities. This is a historic day.”
But controversy over the gun control measures reached beyond Republicans who voted against them as an erosion of the 2nd Amendment. One measure that would allow Californians to petition courts to take guns away from co-workers also drew strong objections from the American Civil Liberties Union. The vote also came against the backdrop of a political tussle between De León and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who has qualified a competing gun control ballot measure with many of the same provisions as those offered in the Legislature.
The measures were expedited to the governor’s desk Thursday in hopes that he might act on them immediately. Brown will probably sign some of the bills before he leaves Friday for a vacation in Europe. He has vetoed gun control measures in the past that he felt went too far.
“I’ve got to look at them,” is all the governor would say Thursday.
The flood of bills was introduced in response to the December terror attack in San Bernardino that left 14 people dead at a holiday party, but momentum for action swelled after the June 12 mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub that killed 49 people.
“The killer sprayed that nightclub with bullets,” De León told his colleagues during the floor debate. “How could someone filled with so much hate have such easy access to ammunition?”
Among the most notable bills the Senate sent the governor was a measure from De León that would require ammunition buyers to show an ID and have their name checked against a list of felons and others prohibited from having firearms.
Most Republicans voted against that bill. Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber said the measures would hinder citizens who obey the law and would be ignored by criminals.
“Gun violence is not committed by law-abiding citizens, it is committed by criminals,” Nielsen said during the floor debate.
The frenzy of legislative votes Thursday took place after political squabbling between De León and Newsom, whose gun control initiative on the November ballot could boost his candidacy for governor in 2018. De León, who also has aspirations for higher office, was rebuked by Newsom after he asked the lieutenant governor to drop the initiative and let the Legislature change the law.
The two recently exchanged harshly worded letters in which the Senate leader said the initiative would confuse voters and allow lawmakers to avoid voting on controversial measures.
On Thursday, Newsom issued a statement indicating he was “pleased” by the Legislature’s action, calling it a “meaningful step in the right direction.” He said he will continue pressing forward with his initiative.
“Now, with the Safety for All initiative, voters will finally have a chance to take matters into their own hands and keep the momentum going with bold reforms that build and expand well beyond today’s achievements,” he said.
California already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, including a ban on assault rifles, but lawmakers said the new bills were meant to plug loopholes exploited by gun manufacturers and owners.
Two of the bills approved by the Legislature ban the sale of semiautomatic rifles with detachable ammunition magazines, including those with “bullet buttons” that when pressed with a sharp object allow the quick removal and replacement of magazines. Those who already own such guns would have to register them with the state as assault weapons.
“These types of firearms have no legitimate use for sport hunters or competitive shooters,” Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) said. “Members, too many of our sons and daughters, too many of our brothers and sisters, too many of our mothers and fathers have fallen victim to gun violence in California. We cannot afford to delay action any longer. The time to act is now.”
ut opposing members argued that the policy was unconstitutional and would not stop another shooter like the one in Orlando.
"You want to blame something you can control, but you can't control murder," Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R-Bakersfield) said. “You can't control insanity.”
Both houses also approved legislation that would ban the possession of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds, building on a current prohibition on their sale. Large-capacity magazines have been found at the scene of several mass shootings, including the one in San Bernardino.
The bills were opposed by the National Rifle Assn., which accused legislators of rushing through “anti-gun, agenda-driven laws”to misuse the legislative process and stymie public participation.
“It's been a shameful process to watch,” said Amy Hunter, an NRA spokeswoman. “The bills hold a common theme: restrictions on the law-abiding citizens of California, while doing nothing to reduce criminal behavior.”
That opposition extended to a bill that would allow co-workers, employers, mental health professionals and employees of high schools and colleges to petition the courts for a “gun violence restraining” order against a person thought to be a danger to themselves or others.
Such restraining orders can be obtained by family members and law enforcement. Thirty have been issued so far this year in the state, officials said. They allow a court to order a person’s firearms confiscated for up to a year. The subject of the order can appeal the action.
“By temporarily taking guns from people deemed dangerous by a court, this bill provides a rational approach to stop gun violence and save lives,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), author of the bill, who noted that mass shootings “most frequently occur at schools and the workplace.”
But the bill drew objections from the American Civil Liberties Union, which said in a letter to lawmakers that the bill “creates significant potential for civil rights violations.” Co-workers with an irrational fear may target a fellow employee without cause, and the bill lacks sufficient due process protections, the ACLU warned.
“An ex-parte order means the person subjected to the restraining order is not informed of the court proceeding and therefore has no opportunity to appear to contest the allegations,” the group said in a statement.
Two other bills sent to the governor address the proliferation of homemade guns, or “ghost guns,” so named because they are built and used without a serial number or registration that would allow them to be traced. The measures would require owners to register those guns with the state and get a serial number for them.
Acting against straw purchases of guns, lawmakers also approved measures that require gun owners to report guns lost or stolen within five days, ban those who falsely report guns stolen from purchasing a firearm for 10 years and prohibit Californians from buying more than one long gun a month, the current rule for handguns.
Another bill would make any theft of a gun a felony. A recent ballot measure approved by voters makes gun thefts a misdemeanor if the value is below $950. A related measure prohibits the lending of guns for up to 30 days without background checks, limiting loans between between family members.
If the gun bills and the initiative are approved, the ballot measure’s provisions would supersede the legislative differences where the two overlap. However, De León’s bill requiring ID checks for ammunition purchasers was recently amended so it would become law instead of a similar provision in the ballot initiative.
Dan Newman, a political consultant for the Newsom initiative, said the change jeopardizes attempts to toughen the law.
“It raises a slew of legal questions which risk giving the NRA the chance to thwart progress by tying it up in the courts,” Newman said.
Dan Reeves, De León’s chief of staff, said the legislation presents a better overall proposal.
“The amendment is designed to ensure a smoother implementation of background checks for ammunition purchases that is less burdensome to gun owners and will cost taxpayers half as much,” Reeves said.
Lawmakers said Thursday that they hoped the rest of the nation would see their action as a model for responsible gun safety.
“I think this is a strong statement that we are sending to the rest of the nation, that we are not going to stand by idly any further,” Jackson said.
Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) added, “We have said enough is enough, and we have shown that it is possible.”
De León was hopeful that the governor would move quickly.
“It my hope that he will do the right thing and he’ll sign a good number of those measures.”