Legislation to ban the sale and possession of military weapons such as the assault rifle used to slay five schoolchildren in Stockton last month received a big boost Monday when two Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting to approve it.
On a 9 to 2 vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee endorsed the politically sensitive measure by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who pronounced himself “very optimistic” that it would clear the full Senate as early as Thursday.
To secure favorable votes from the committee, Roberti weakened the bill somewhat with amendments, a tactic that failed to win over or neutralize the National Rifle Assn., which has mounted a major campaign to defeat the proposal.
NRA representative David Marshall complained to the committee that the amendments, rather than clarifying the legislation, would create more confusion over the difference between a legal sporting firearm and an illegal gun.
But Roberti, flushed with victory, declared after the committee vote that “it is clear we are getting Republican support. . . . They recognize that the purpose of the bill is to just get assault weapons out of the hands of the general public and it has nothing to do with banning legitimate sporting weapons.”
Last week in the Judiciary Committee, the bill was barely approved, receiving a “no” vote from each Republican member along with two Democrats. Although the gun control issue has always been politically delicate for members of both parties, Republicans traditionally are more reluctant than Democrats to vote in favor of additional restraints on gun ownership.
But in the Appropriations Committee on Monday, Republicans Marian Bergeson of Newport Beach and Robert B. Beverly of Manhattan Beach joined seven Democrats in voting “aye.” The bill needed at least seven favorable votes.
GOP Sens. William Campbell of Hacienda Heights and James W. Nielsen of Rohnert Park voted “no.” Democratic Sen. Bill Lockyer of Hayward, who voted against the measure last week in the Judiciary Committee, abstained in the appropriations panel’s vote.
Roberti, who a few weeks ago described himself as moderately cautious about the bill’s prospects, upgraded his confidence rating to “very optimistic” Monday and said he believes both Democratic and GOP senators “now recognize that we have a common obligation to get assault weapons out of the hands of the general public.”
The bill is sponsored by top law enforcement officers throughout the state, who maintain that gang members and drug traffickers with semiautomatic military combat weapons are outgunning police officers and that such criminals are terrorizing entire neighborhoods in Los Angeles and elsewhere.
The bill would ban the manufacture, sale, general possession and transfer of semiautomatic military assault weapons, such as the Chinese-made AK-47 that Patrick Edward Purdy fired at least 106 times into the Stockton schoolyard on Jan. 17, killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher.
Purdy’s weapon was purchased over the counter in Oregon, where rifle ownership laws are similar to those of California. In California, anyone 18 years or older can buy such a gun by showing standard identification and filling out a federal form declaring that he or she is not, among other things, a drug addict or fugitive.
To meet the concerns of lawmakers such as Sen. Robert B. Presley (D-Riverside), Roberti agreed to weaken the bill so that an appointed “assault weapons” commission would be purely advisory rather than a powerful regulatory entity.
Originally, the panel would have had the authority, whenever a new gun came on the market, to determine whether it should be exempt from the ban on semiautomatic arms. But many lawmakers objected to the notion of a commission appointed by the governor and Legislature deciding which guns were “good” and which were “bad.”
Roberti agreed to make the commission an advisory agency, whose recommendations to approve or ban new guns would be made to the Legislature. The final decision would be left to the Legislature and governor.
In the Assembly, a bill by Assemblyman Mike Roos (R-Los Angeles) proposed a similar commission, but he abandoned the commission in the face of major opposition. The Roos bill also would outlaw about 40 semiautomatic firearms by model and manufacturer.
By contrast, the Roberti bill contains a generalized definition of the semiautomatic assault weapon, which would encompass a vast array of firearms. Law enforcement organizations that drafted the legislation insisted on this feature. Supporters maintain that such a broad definition is necessary to prevent the manufacture and sale of “look-alike” assault weapons, those that closely resemble weapons that would be banned.
Roberti also added to the bill another 10 semiautomatic rifles that would be exempted from the prohibition, all of them currently considered hunting arms. The bill previously listed about 27 “good” guns that would be exempted.
Here is how the Appropriations Committee voted:
Democrats voting aye (7)--Alfred E. Alquist of San Jose; Ruben S. Ayala of Chino; Daniel E. Boatwright of Concord; Wadie P. Deddeh of Bonita; Ralph C. Dills of Gardena; Art Torres of Los Angeles, and Presley.
Republicans voting aye (2)--Bergeson and Beverly.
Democrats voting no (0)--None.
Republicans voting no (2)--Campbell of Hacienda Heights and Nielsen of Rohnert Park.
Abstaining (1)--Lockyer (D-Hayward).