Legislature OKs Tough Controls on Assault Weapons


With lawmakers citing the horrors of gun violence, the Legislature gave final approval Monday to a bill toughening California's law against assault weapons and sent it to Gov. Gray Davis, who has promised to sign it.

The bill passed the Assembly by a 46-23 vote and the Senate by 26-13 margin, largely along partisan lines. But a handful of Republicans bolted from their party's position to support the legislation and a smattering of Democrats, whose party controls both houses, voted against it.

The bill, SB 23, by Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), would ban semiautomatic weapons that hold more than 10 bullets or can be readily concealed and easily maneuvered while firing. It also would make it a crime for any person to manufacture, import, sell or give away in California any magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.

People who own guns covered by the measure would have a year to register their weapons with law enforcement, or face penalties of up to $500 for first-time offenders. Repeat violators could face felony charges.

"The longer we debate this, the longer people will be at risk," said Perata, who carried similar legislation last year that was vetoed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson and has pushed for prohibitions on the military-style firearms for more than a decade.

Anti-gun groups were quick to praise the legislation.

Luis Tolley of the Washington-based organization Handgun Control said the bill goes farther than federal prohibitions on the guns, and will give California "the toughest ban on assault weapons and rapid-fire ammunition magazines in the country.

"We are going to rid our streets of these weapons of war once and for all," Tolley said.

Federal law prohibits the manufacture--but not sale--of large-capacity magazines and guns that fit the federal definition of assault weapons.

Perata's bill would ban not just the manufacture but also the sale of such weapons and magazines. Additionally, his bill imposes a stricter definition of assault weapons than current federal law and includes a larger number of weapons.

The number of weapons affected by the legislation is not known.

"Anybody who gives you a number is making it up," Tolley said. "Nobody knows how many. . . . But it is very, very significant. There won't be any more rapid-fire weapons sold in California."

Perata's measure defines assault weapons as semiautomatic rifles or pistols that hold more than 10 rounds. Semiautomatic firearms also would be illegal if they can accept detachable magazines and have various accessories--such as pistol grips, second handgrips, or folding stocks--that make them easier to maneuver or conceal.

Additionally, semiautomatic weapons would not be permitted to have threaded barrels that would allow them to accept silencers, extra handgrips, flash suppressors or grenade launchers. Nor would semiautomatic rifles be permitted to be less than 30 inches long. Semiautomatic shotguns would be prohibited from having folding or telescoping stocks.

Pro-gun organizations and their allies in the Legislature tried but failed to derail the bill, contending that the measure would cover huge numbers of currently legal weapons, and that it is filled with loopholes that will lead to court fights.

"This bill is theater," said Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles), insisting that the legislation will do little to remove firepower from the streets. "Why is there never enough time to do it right? But there's always enough time to do it over again."

The National Rifle Assn. passed out leaflets titled "The one minute fix for a rifle 'banned' by SB 23." One showed a man turning an illegal gun into a supposedly legal one simply by sawing off a pistol grip.

Assemblyman Jim Battin (R-La-Quinta) contended that the measure will be flouted. That prompted Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach) to say he was "appalled that [legislators] are talking about how to get around the bill."

Perata said that if gun owners find ways around the bill's restrictions, he will return with new legislation. In fact, Democrats recognize that their support of gun control is a popular issue with the electorate. They would be quite content to return next year, an election year, with a new spate of anti-gun bills in another attempt to embarrass Republicans.

Some Republicans, however, sided with Democrats on the issue.

"They are weapons of war; they shouldn't be on the streets," said freshman Assemblyman Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria, one of four Assembly Republicans who voted for the legislation.

"California wants to get rid of assault weapons," added Assemblywoman Charlene Zettel of Poway, another first-term Republican.

In 1989, after the massacre of five children at a Stockton elementary school, the Legislature, led by then-state Sen. David A. Roberti and Assemblyman Mike Roos, approved a ban on dozens of specific firearms. At the time, Perata was on the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, and worked with Roberti and Roos on their measure.

Manufacturers responded to the passage of the 1989 law by simply changing minor features and renaming their weapons, while gun owners and their advocates tied up aspects of the law in court. Some of those cases continue to this day.

But some legislators pushed to expand the law by creating a generic definition of the targeted guns, finally approving one last year before Wilson vetoed it.

This year, the assault weapons bill has taken on greater significance because Davis, Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and most other Democrats were swept into office last year on campaigns that included opposition to such weapons.

Several other gun bills have passed the Legislature, including one that would limit gun buyers to one purchase a month. Another bill that is pending would ban small, cheap handguns.

In other action Monday, the Assembly approved by a 46-25 vote legislation that would protect workers over 40 from layoffs.

The bill, which seeks to overturn a 1997 California Appellate Court decision, would prohibit employers from using higher salaries as a reason to fire or lay off employees if that decision has a disproportionately higher impact on employees over 40. The legislation by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) must return to the Senate for a final vote.

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