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Assembly, Senate Approve Curbs on Cheap Handguns

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In what would be landmark legislation, the Senate and Assembly approved separate bills Wednesday to ban the manufacture and sale of cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials and junk guns.

California manufactures 80% of the nation’s supply of such guns, which are frequently used in violent crimes.

While neither measure bans possession of the weapons, the bills by Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) and 14 Assembly members led by Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) would prohibit the sale of any existing handguns, either by manufacturers who have stockpiles of them or by individuals.

The bills strike hard at half a dozen Southern California gun makers, including Bryco Arms in Costa Mesa, that produce the inexpensive handguns, which cost about $150 or less new and can be bought later on the street for as little as $30 to $40.

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Gun opponents say these easily concealable handguns are used in 70% of the crimes in which guns are involved.

“This is really going to be one of the strongest laws in the country,” said Luis Tolley, the western regional director of Handgun Control in Los Angeles. “Because most handguns are made in California, this is really going to set the standard for the nation.”

Gov. Pete Wilson has not indicated whether he would sign either bill, although he has backed some past gun control measures that law enforcement groups support. Law enforcement groups have endorsed both the Senate and Assembly bills.

“There are a number of questions we have with regard to those bills,” said Sean Walsh, Wilson’s spokesman.

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“Overall, the governor believes that individuals, particularly women, have the right to possess a handgun for their self-protection,” Walsh said. Referring to the fact that the guns banned by the bill are the least expensive on the market, he said, “We do have concern that protection of women should not be based solely on income level.”

Mary Leigh Blek of Mission Viejo, who has been lobbying for the ban since her 21-year-old son was murdered in New York three years ago, said that while “there is nothing that can justify Matthew’s death,” the ban “does bring honor to his memory.”

“Enough is enough, and we are not going to tolerate junk guns in this state,” Blek, 51, said. “I know that there will be lives saved because of this legislation, and it pleases me to know that another family will not have to go through this pain.”

Blek, who formed the Orange County Citizens for the Prevention of Gun Violence, said the victory was bittersweet, because the Assembly bill did not receive support from her own representatives.

“I’m disappointed in Orange County but elated that the Assembly as a whole decided to do the right thing,” Blek said.

The Assembly initially rejected Caldera’s measure. But in a turnaround shortly before midnight Tuesday, the bill won the minimum 41 votes--including those of three Republicans--needed for passage in the 80-member lower house. The bill now will head to the Senate.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) issued a statement lauding the measure as a “major step forward in the battle to get cheap guns that are used frequently in crime off of the streets.”

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Similarly, a spokesman for Rep. Charles Schumer (D--N.Y.), co-sponsor with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) of a bill to ban cheap handguns nationally, called the action “a great step for California.” He noted, however, that manufacturers could simply move to another state, unless there is federal legislation.

The legislative votes came as voters in the city of Livermore approved an ordinance Tuesday that would ban the sale of inexpensive handguns, bringing to 33 the number of cities or counties in California that have imposed restrictions on what Polanco called “cheap, killer guns.”

And in Massachusetts on Wednesday, Atty. Gen. Scott Harshbarger issued regulations banning the sale of Saturday night specials in that state. The regulations start taking effect this year and would impose safety standards, including child-proofing and trigger locks. They would ban the sale of 30 common types of .22- and .25-caliber pistols.

In California, the gun control vote was perhaps more significant in the Assembly, where a similar ban on Saturday night specials failed last year.

“It totally rewrites the equation,” Caldera said, calling the bill (AB 488) the first major anti-gun bill to win Assembly approval since 1989, when the Legislature approved a measure that sought to ban the sale of assault weapons.

Polanco’s bill (SB 500) passed the Senate on a 24-14 vote, three more than a majority in the 40-seat Senate. One Republican supported the bill. It now goes to the Assembly.

Both measures won the strong support of urban lawmakers, particularly from Southern California. Several described gun violence as “epidemic” and a public health threat, especially for children.

“These guns can easily be purchased on the streets today. They are very cheap, disposable guns,” Polanco said.

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Opponents contend that the measures would deny poor people the opportunity to buy guns for personal protection.

One foe, Sen. Richard Mountjoy (R-Arcadia), suggested that the guns in question are less than reliable.

“I would just as soon all these thugs have them so when they show up to rob you or murder you, they misfire,” Mountjoy said. “I don’t want them to go out and buy these real good guns that fire every time.”

Robert Ricker, a lobbyist for the American Shooting Sports Council, which represents gun manufacturers including the Southern California gun makers, was particularly upset with the Assembly bill, saying: “It throws the baby out with the bathwater. A lot of very fine firearms will be banned in California.”

The Senate measure, by contrast, has been amended in a way that means it is “going in the right direction,” Ricker said.

Neither house’s bill would ban possession of Saturday night specials because, Polanco said, such a provision “would have run into a constitutional problem.”

Both measures would rely largely on existing federal standards to define which handguns are suspect. Those standards deal with issues such as the quality of the metal used in the guns, and whether they discharge when they are dropped.

The federal guidelines were adopted in 1968 after Sen. Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated with an imported handgun. The federal law banned importation of such guns, but allowed U.S. companies to continue to manufacture them.

One of the main differences between the Senate and Assembly bills is how the ban would be enforced.

The Assembly bill would require manufacturers to pay for tests of guns and to persuade the state that the weapons meet state standards before they could sell them.

The Senate bill, by contrast, would have the state Department of Justice develop a list of banned guns. The Senate approach might permit the manufacture of copycat guns under different names, some critics say.

The Assembly measure also would require that handguns sold in California starting in 2002 have certain safety mechanisms, or contain a warning that they don’t have such devices. In earlier versions, Caldera’s bill included stiffer safety restrictions.

The turnaround in the Assembly vote came late Tuesday night when Democratic Speaker Cruz Bustamante (D-Fresno), who initially did not vote on the bill, voted for it, and after Assemblyman Lou Papan (D-Millbrae), who had voted against the measure early in the day, switched positions.

“The politics of it made me vote for it,” Papan said. “I vacillated, if you want to know the truth.”

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Once they voted for the bill, three Republicans joined in.

“In the last analysis, we are elected by people to try to do the right thing,” said Assemblyman Brooks Firestone (R-Los Olivos), who cast one of the deciding votes. “You do the best you can. That is a platitude, but, man, it’s true.”

The other two Republicans were Steven Kuykendall of Rancho Palos Verdes and Jim Cunneen of San Jose.

Also contributing to this report were Times staff writers Kimberly Sanchez in Orange County, Carl Ingram in Sacramento and Dina Bass in Washington.


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