Picking up where they left off last year, California's lawmakers are charging back to work vowing to pass another batch of tough gun control laws. But this time, as a high-stakes election season begins to unfold, it seems they have lost their most important ally, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
The budding conflict on gun control here in the nation's most populous and often most influential state is hardly just another routine squabble in party politics. California has emerged as a national leader in restricting the sale and use of firearms, with its trend-setting legislature firmly controlled by Democrats and showing more willingness than Congress to tackle the issue. The state's pivotal primary for presidential candidates also is only two months away, and gun control figures to be at the forefront of voter concerns.
Last summer, with the fervent support of the newly elected Davis, California adopted a groundbreaking set of laws designed to crack down on the proliferation of guns. The package includes what gun control groups call the nation's toughest ban on assault weapons. It limits handgun purchases in the state to one a month and prohibits the manufacture or sale of cheap "Saturday Night Special" handguns that often are used in violent crimes. It also requires all guns made or sold in California to have safety locks on triggers.
Now, lawmakers across the Golden State say they want to take another potentially significant step: Imposing more extensive registration and new licensing requirements on prospective gun owners.
An array of proposals already is being developed in the legislature, which reconvened last week. Most would force gun owners to take more safety tests, pay higher fees and renew a firearms license every year or few years. Advocates of the ideas say that they would help police track guns used in crimes more easily and conduct background checks of gun owners regularly--not just at the time of a purchase.
"We made tremendous strides last year, but we still need to do more," said state Rep. Jack Scott, the chairman of the legislature's select committee on gun violence. "These are common-sense things that the public says it wants."
Many lawmakers, including Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, are urging Davis to keep an open mind about supporting a new slate of gun regulations. After years of political gridlock on the issue, they know they have the votes and the key interest groups on their side to get measures passed. The California Police Chiefs Association has expressed support for licensing and registration of guns, and has yet to complain about the workload the new laws will create.
Stopping now, lawmakers contend, also would send the wrong message to an electorate that in many polls is showing growing interest in strict gun control.
But Davis sounds worried that the legislature is going too far, too fast. His caution, his aides say, is both practical and political. He wants to give law enforcement officials and the public a chance to adjust to and assess the new gun laws without creating still more rules. He also apparently fears that approving another wave of gun laws could galvanize conservative voters at a time when the looming presidential race in make-or-break California looks quite competitive. Some early polls of hypothetical election matchups show Vice President Gore, whom Davis has endorsed, in a dead heat with Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
In his annual address to the legislature on Wednesday, Davis barely mentioned gun control, saying instead that his dominant priority this year will be using the state's projected $3 billion surplus to hire better teachers and improve public schools. He praised the gun measures that lawmakers approved last year as sensible and important, but then said simply, "They need time to work."
Garry South, a political adviser to Davis, said the legislature should not doubt the governor's resolve on shelving gun control for the year. "He is being very clear," South said. "We should not be overloading the system with too many new laws at once. We believe the public wants us to take a deep breath and make sure these laws work first. There can be a real backlash to where we're going."
Even though they are just taking effect, the new laws are creating seismic changes in California's gun industry. First, the mere prospect of tougher gun regulations is prompting smaller weapons retailers, some with questionable business practices, to close. Larger outlets that gun groups say often work more comfortably with law enforcement agencies are taking control of the market.
Second, gun sales in the state have been soaring, especially in the past few months. In December, sales were twice as high as they were a year earlier. The increases were the first in California since 1993, the year after the Los Angeles riots. Yet annual gun sales are still lower now than they were then.
The National Rifle Association regards the spurt in sales as the first of many unintended consequences from the legislature's steps on gun control last year. NRA leaders in California also contend that some of the new laws are confusing gun dealers in the state. Two major dealers already have stopped selling several kinds of rifles because of how the new rules are drawn, but the state attorney general is calling that move an NRA ploy to undermine the law.
Adding new licensing and registration requirements as that debate rages would only make matters more complicated, and do little good, the NRA says.
Steve Helsley, the NRA's top official in California, said such steps would force the state to create a costly new bureaucracy, overburden local police agencies and harass law-abiding gun owners with higher fees and endless paperwork. Gun owners also would be at risk of having legal weapons seized, he said.
"All of this is focused on the good guys," Helsley said. "The key issue is where registration and licensing takes you--to confiscation. If you can't keep paying the fees, you surrender the gun."
Chuck Michel, a director of the 70,000-member California Rifle and Pistol Association, said, "The only goal of this is to make it more and more difficult to own a gun."
Under current California law, gun buyers must take a short multiple-choice test on firearms safety, submit to one-time background checks and wait 10 days to get a weapon. But gun control advocates contend that process makes it difficult for criminal investigators to track guns and is riddled with loopholes. Military veterans and licensed hunters, for example, are exempt from taking safety tests. The tests also can be taken and re-taken in gun stores, which gun control groups call a blatant conflict of interest.
Lawmakers who support gun licensing, and renewals every few years, say that it would be a simple process not much different from the requirements for owning motor vehicles the public readily accepts.
"The system we have now is very weak. When someone buys a gun, they get checked once and never checked again," said Luis Tolley, the western regional director for Handgun Control. "There are no hands-on safety tests, and we let gun stores give the written test. It's like letting a used car salesman tell someone, 'Here's a license; it's okay to drive.' We would never let that happen with cars."
The Record of Sale
An increase in the number of Dealer Record of Sale (DROS) documents processed has led to more denials of gun purchases.
Jan. -- June 1998
Jan. -- June 1999
SOURCE: California Department of Justice