California lawmakers have approved the toughest ban in the nation on assault weapons, and this time the votes were not even close.
Ignoring a fierce campaign by the National Rifle Association, both houses of the state legislature decided by 2 to 1 margins late Monday to pass the measure, which defines assault weapons more broadly and more strictly than similar federal statutes. It would ban the manufacture, import or sale of any semiautomatic rifles or pistols that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition or can be easily concealed.
Gov. Gray Davis (D) already has pledged to sign the bill into law. It is one of many gun control measures heading to his desk that the Democratic-controlled legislature has passed in recent months. And it even drew support from some Republican lawmakers who disregarded their party's stance on the issue.
Public support for tougher gun control is growing here in the nation's largest state, especially in the aftermath of the shooting rampage this spring in Littleton, Colo. With full control of the state government for the first time in decades, California Democrats have the issue atop their agenda. And both Vice President Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley have been calling for greater gun control in their early campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination next year.
"This is going to send a message across the country," state Sen. Don Perata, the Democrat who sponsored the assault weapons bill, said today. "Any state that thought this couldn't be done, now we have the formula for it."
Gun control groups praised the measure and said that they hoped it would become a national model. "We are going to rid our streets of these weapons of war once and for all," said Luis Tolley, a lobbyist in California for the group Handgun Control. "We hope Congress will soon follow California's lead."
State lawmakers attempted to enact a tougher ban on assault weapons last year, but Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed it before he left office. California's first attempt to limit the manufacture and sale of assault weapons 10 years ago has been mired in courts and was never strongly enforced by Republican administrations in Sacramento.
Also, after that law was passed, some gun manufacturers managed to elude its narrow provisions simply by making slight changes in the features or the names of some assault weapons. As one example, Perata cited the TEC9 assault weapon, which was used in the Columbine High School massacre. It had not been covered under California's original law because manufacturers modified the gun and renamed it the TEC-DC9.
The new law aims to close that loophole with more generic and broader definitions for assault weapons. It would ban semiautomatic rifles and pistols with the capacity to hold 10 or more rounds of ammunition. Semiautomatic rifles less than 30 inches long would be prohibited, as would all semiautomatic firearms that have detachable magazines and other parts, such as threaded barrels, second handgrips or folding stocks. Magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition could not be manufactured or sold.
Law enforcement officers in the state would be exempted from the law. State residents who already own weapons covered by the bill would have a year to register them with police.
Before the legislature's vote on Monday, NRA officials denounced the assault weapon bill as political grandstanding that would do little to deter violent crime. The NRA and some lawmakers also said that the measure could still be quickly skirted by gun manufacturers or owners.
"It's political buffoonery," said Steve Helsley, the NRA's liaison in California. "A lot of people who own firearms are hopelessly confused by this and are going to get arrested or hurt by trying to modify their guns. Voters will soon see that this is only symbolism, and they will hold the governor accountable for it."
But Davis and the state's attorney general, also a newly elected Democrat, are vowing to enforce the assault weapons ban aggressively. Next week, the governor also is likely to sign a bill the legislature recently passed that would make California the largest state to limit handgun purchases to one a month. Only three other states, among them Maryland and Virginia, have approved similar restrictions.
Michael Bustamante, a spokesman for the governor, denounced the NRA's tactics in the assault weapon debate.
"They are already telling people ways to try to get around this even before the governor signs it," Bustamante said.
Among gun owners in California, reaction to the looming assault weapon ban seemed mixed today. At a gun shop in Culver City, which is next to Los Angeles, Kalan Colon, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, said that the state "shouldn't limit the accessories a collector can own. The accessories are what makes a gun," he said.
Under the new ban, Colon said that he would have to register the M-14 rifle he had just brought into the shop for repairs and also switch from 20-round magazines to five-round clips.
But another customer, Jack Wolf, a retired banker, said that he did not mind the tougher rules. "I think it makes sense," he said. "I don't see any need for a repeating automatic weapon, at least not in the city."
Special correspondent Cassandra Stern contributed to this report.
CAPTION: California Gov. Gray Davis (D) is expected to sign a bill that would ban assault weapons and another that would limit handgun purchases to one a month.