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Gun Control: A Barrage of Bills Raises Prospects

The state Legislature appears to be on the verge of something it has determinedly avoided for years: a real debate on the issue of gun violence in California and how best to resolve it. This should be mighty interesting. The state’s weak gun laws had become the elephant in the room, so to speak, during legislative discussions of crime. No one was willing to acknowledge the obvious--that meaningful limits on the manufacture and sale of guns, not just tougher prison sentences, would help to curb violent crime.

The gun lobby has held such a powerful grip on Sacramento that state law is riddled with provisions giving guns and gun owners unwarranted special treatment. For example, possession of a concealed knife or brass knuckles is often tried as a felony while possession of a concealed firearm is generally a misdemeanor case.

But last week brought clear evidence of a welcome new resolve among many lawmakers on this issue. No fewer than seven practical bills won passage in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. They include measures to limit individuals to one handgun purchase each month, to require that guns made in California have several safety features, such as trigger locks, and to permit cities and counties to license gun owners and register all guns. Each bill would give law enforcement important new tools in curbing gun crime. Taken together, they could make a big difference.

The most far-reaching bill would permit cities and counties to enact local ordinances that go further than state law in banning the sale or manufacture of guns. The state’s preemption on gun control has long been justified as a way to prevent a patchwork of conflicting laws across California’s many cities and counties. But preemption has become an excuse for some lawmakers to block the increasingly desperate efforts of local leaders to stop the killing on their streets. This bill comes up next on the Assembly floor, where it faces long odds.

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Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, who should embrace all earnest efforts to improve public safety in California, opposes this one, complaining that passage would mean his agents and the public would have to familiarize themselves with many more local ordinances. “A policeman’s lot is not a happy one,” a police sergeant griped in a Gilbert and Sullivan song, but when we’re talking about guns in the hands of irresponsible people, mastering local ordinances should not be the obstacle.

Also key is a bill that would bar the sale and manufacture of cheap handguns, commonly called Saturday night specials. Southern California has become a national center for production of these firearms, which too frequently are used in crimes like robberies and carjackings. Federal law bans their import from overseas, but production is legal--and flourishing--here. A new congressional study found that states with weak gun control laws supply a large percentage of the guns used in crimes in states with tougher laws. The study focuses on four southern states, but the California manufacturers who in recent years have churned out more than 540,000 handguns, or 80% of all such weapons nationally, surely also have blood on their hands.

A Democratic majority in this Legislature gives Californians some real hope for progress against gun violence. Our lawmakers should not duck the issue, and if they do they should hear about it in the next election.


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