California bill to clamp down on semiautomatic rifles heads for vote this week

 Sheriff’s deputies stand outside the Chabad of Poway synagogue in April after a deadly shooting
Sheriff’s deputies stand outside the Chabad of Poway synagogue in April after a deadly shooting there in April.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Californians would be barred from buying more than one semiautomatic rifle a month and those weapons would be off-limits to people younger than 21 under a bill set for a final vote in the Legislature this week.

The restrictions are being sought by state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), who noted that such weapons have been used in mass shootings, including an April attack on the Chabad of Poway by a 19-year-old man who killed one person and injured three others.

For the record:

7:08 p.m. Sept. 11, 2019A previous version of this story reported that a bill limiting the purchase of semiautomatic guns to one a month was sent to the governor Wednesday. The bill still awaits a vote in the Assembly and then approval of amendments in the Senate.

Portantino’s bill originally would have limited purchases of all long guns to one every 30 days, but he decided to exclude shotguns and some rifles that are popular with hunters and instead focus the restriction on semiautomatic rifles.

“That’s the weapon of choice over and over again” for mass shooters, Portantino said to explain why he narrowed the bill to those guns. “We are focusing on what we think is the most heinous gun that is causing most of the activity.”

State law already bans the sale of guns to people under age 21, but there is an exemption for those who have state hunting licenses.


Portantino decided to close that loophole for semiautomatic rifles after it was learned that the Poway shooter had applied for a hunting license, although it was not valid at the time of the deadly attack.

“Under the bill, even if you have a hunting license you can’t buy one of these guns if you are under 21,” Portantino said.

The restrictions are opposed by groups representing gun owners, including the National Rifle Assn. and its state affiliate, the California Rifle and Pistol Assn.

“The NRA believes lawmakers ought to have the interests of Californians at heart and place their focus and the full burden of law on criminals,” said Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the group. “Sadly, they don’t. This bill places burdens on law-abiding residents. It will not make anyone safer.”

The bill would reduce sales of long guns and the manufacturing jobs they create, while cutting fee revenue from sales that go to the state Department of Justice, the state firearms group said in a letter to lawmakers.

“There are, in fact, numerous legitimate recreational and Second Amendment protected reasons why an individual might want, and need, to transfer more than one firearm a month,” the group said, noting that some gun competitions require use of three firearms.

Supporters of the bill have argued it will reduce straw purchases, in which an eligible gun buyer purchases numerous firearms at once and then sells them illegally to people unable to buy guns, including felons.

But the California Rifle and Pistol Assn. argued federal law already makes such sales illegal.

“Rather than having the desired effect of targeting criminals, this bill will impact only the law abiding, thereby further limiting available funding” to the Department of Justice, the group said.

Other bills with broader bans on purchasing more than one long gun a month were vetoed in 2015 and 2018 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, who felt they went too far in limiting the right to own firearms.

“While well-intentioned, I believe this bill would have the effect of burdening lawful citizens who wish to sell certain firearms that they no longer need,” Brown said in his 2015 veto message. “Given California’s stringent laws restricting gun ownership, I do not believe this additional restriction is needed.”

However, Newsom might be more amenable to Portantino’s narrower bill if it passes the Legislature. He was elected on a campaign that included gun control, including leadership of the campaign for 2016’s Proposition 63, which created new restrictions on firearms and large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Just this week, Newsom was one of 12 Democratic governors who signed a letter to President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) calling for them to “pass sensible gun legislation,” including a red-flag law that allows guns to be removed from people identified as a danger.

“Our country continues to mourn the tragic events in Gilroy, El Paso, Dayton, Philadelphia, and Odessa,” said the letter signed by Newsom. “These five unnecessary and horrific tragedies took at least 34 lives, wounded dozens, and caused emotional trauma to countless others.”