California lawmakers Thursday voted to require weapons manufacturers to ensure that all bullets and cartridges are branded with distinctive serial numbers.
Contained in two measures that are intended to help law enforcement solve cases, the proposal would be unique among states if approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The gun industry said the proposals were impractical and would force weapons makers to either write off the huge California market or adopt practices that would greatly increase the cost of their wares.
Lawmakers also approved bills that would allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, restrict inexperienced teenage drivers from carrying passengers, increase the minimum wage, and make cigarettes more “fire-safe.” The cigarette bill passed narrowly, in spite of an effort by the tobacco industry to kill it.
The measures were among hundreds that passed -- or died -- as lawmakers rushed to meet a deadline today for each legislative chamber to move its bills to the other for review. They have until the end of August to decide whether to send the proposals to the governor.
An Assembly measure to legalize same-sex unions, which lacked enough support to pass Wednesday night after an intense debate, came up again Thursday but failed. Lawmakers cast 37 votes in favor but needed 41 for passage. There were 36 no votes and seven abstentions.
On the weapons measures, though a number of law enforcement officials backed them, there was strong opposition from Republican lawmakers, manufacturers and gun groups. Opponents said both measures would be useless in tracking most crimes back to their sources, because few criminals obtain their weapons through legal channels.
“Criminals don’t walk into gun stores,” said Lawrence Keane, the general counsel for the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute, based in Newtown, Conn. “No other state is even contemplating two such unworkable and ill-considered pieces of legislation.”
One of the proposals, from state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer and approved in the Senate, 21-14, would require manufacturers, starting in 2007, to stamp bullets sold in California with a identification number that police could trace to the store where the ammunition was sold.
“We can put individualized serial numbers on cartons of yogurt, on almost everything in society, with very little additional cost,” said Sen. Joe Dunn (D-Santa Ana), who sponsored the measure, SB 357.
The second measure, which was approved by the Assembly, 41-37, would mandate that all new semiautomatic handguns, starting in 2007, include technology that would stamp a distinguishing serial number onto a cartridge when it is fired. Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), the sponsor of AB 352, said the markings “won’t always lead to the criminal, but it will create leads” for police.
Though Koretz said no law enforcement groups opposed his bill, Republican lawmakers criticized it strongly. Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) argued that criminals could plant spent shell casings to mislead investigators.
“I’m incredibly concerned about the ability to frame innocent people through the use of this technique,” Spitzer said.
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wrote to Schwarzenegger last month that he was “strongly opposed to this proposal because of the harmful impact it will have on the manufacturers of ammunition used by our nation’s armed services and law enforcement agencies.”
Weapons weren’t the only subject of clashes on the issue of special markings Thursday. The Senate approved, 22 to 16, the latest incarnation of legislation to allow some illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
The proposed licenses would be specially designated so they could not be used as a broader form of identification. Democrats last year rejected the idea of a second tier of licenses, but the governor vetoed the proposal they passed, which would have allowed undocumented residents to have regular driver’s licenses.
This year, Congress gave states the option of issuing the distinctive licenses, and Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored the previous measures, reluctantly adopted the approach in SB 60. The Schwarzenegger administration has said that it will not support any legislation until the federal Department of Homeland Security finalizes rules for the alternative licenses.
Another bill that lawmakers passed would require that cigarettes sold in California starting next year be fire-safe by extinguishing in a few minutes if a smoker doesn’t draw on it. Such a law took effect in New York in 2004, and Canada is expected to implement a similar law in October.
To meet the requirements, tobacco companies would have to wrap cigarettes in ridged paper that would slow ignition, making the cigarettes less likely to set bedding and sofas on fire. According to the National Fire Protection Assn., cigarettes, cigars and other smoking materials are the nation’s leading cause of fire deaths.
Most cigarette makers took no position on the bill, AB 178 by Koretz. But R.J. Reynolds Co. spent $67,000 in the first three months of this year lobbying against that bill and others.
The Assembly took an initial vote on the measure Wednesday, and 42 lawmakers supported it, one more than necessary for passage. But Republicans asked for another vote, and R.J. Reynolds’ lobbyists went into action in the hallway outside the chamber, sending lawmakers’ notes that asked them to come outside to hear arguments against the bill.
On a second ballot a couple of hours later, the proposal fell short of passage after Assemblyman Ronald S. Calderon (D-Montebello) switched his yes vote to no and Assemblyman Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo), who had supported the measure, abstained.
“These tobacco lobbyists are smoking me!” said an incredulous Koretz after the vote. Democrats asked for a third vote, and later in the evening the bill passed, 44-33, with Calderon switching back to yes and three other Democrats who had not voted joining in support.
Other legislation approved Thursday would:
* Lengthen from six months to one year the time teenagers who receive provisional driver’s licenses must wait before they can transport other teenagers as passengers. SB 806 by Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) was approved 24-12.
* Bar health insurance companies from dropping dependent children from coverage before they turn 26. Current law allows insurers to terminate coverage when dependents turn 19 or, if they are full-time students, 23. The Assembly passed SB 1698, which was sponsored by Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), by a vote of 44-30.
* Raise the minimum wage from $6.75 an hour to $7.25 an hour starting July 2006. Schwarzenegger vetoed a similar bill last year. AB 48 by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) passed the Assembly, 42-26.
* Require farmers to provide workers with shade, water and 10-minute breaks each hour during heat waves and teach employees about the warning signs of heat illness. The bill would also require the state to adopt occupational health and safety standards for all workers at risk of heat illness. AB 805 by Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) passed the Assembly, 43-32.
* Allow pharmacists to refuse on moral grounds to fill prescriptions, such as those for birth control and “morning-after” pills, only after the pharmacist has notified his or her employer in writing of the objection. Violations would be subject to disciplinary action by the state Board of Pharmacy. AB 21 by Assemblyman Lloyd Levine (D-Van Nuys) passed the Assembly, 43-23.
* Allow child victims of sexual assault to testify over closed-circuit TV instead of in courtrooms. The Senate unanimously passed SB 138 by Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria).
* Require the director of the Department of Corrections to allow nonprofit groups or public health agencies to distribute condoms in California prisons. Sex is prohibited in prisons but is widespread, and Democratic lawmakers argued that the bill would help prevent the spread of HIV, AIDS and other diseases. AB 1677 by Koretz passed the Assembly, 41-34.