California's 'blockbuster' gun bills

If key gun-control measures pass in Golden State, ripple effect may befelt across America

Watching this year's ongoing debate over gun laws has been a little bit like gazing at the sea. The tide surges in one direction, only to be followed by a rush of equal force in the other.

That mixed picture, though, could tilt dramatically in favor of gun control in the next several weeks as California moves toward likely passage of America's most significant new firearm restrictions since the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., say gun-control advocates.

There are four bills in play here, one already headed to the governor's desk. And enactment of even a couple of them would constitute a "blockbuster" given the size of the state and the ripple effect of its policies, says Joe Sudbay, director of state legislation for Handgun Control Inc. in Washington.

Gun politics is so tricky that nearly everyone is careful in making predictions. Indeed, the ebb and flow nationally of new gun laws has been evident all year.

Gun-rights advocates had big plans early on, and some success, in efforts to loosen restrictions on concealed weapons and prohibit lawsuits against firearm manufacturers. They also stymied moves to gain new firearm limits from Congress.

At the same time, school shootings, particularly the one in Littleton, created a surge in the other direction that has yielded results, too.

In California, though, dramatic gains were foreshadowed last November with the installation of a new Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and an even greater Democratic control of the legislature. As a result, new proposals on assault weapons, so-called "Saturday night special" handguns, and firearm safety locks all have far stronger odds of approval than in years past.

One indicator of the legislature's gun-control inclination was its recent approval of a measure to prohibit handgun purchases to one per month. The bill moved so swiftly it caught the governor's office by surprise, and he has yet to take a position on it. A decision is expected this week, prior to the legislature's summer recess.

At the state level across the country, there is other potential good news for gun-control advocates.

A bill forcing unlicensed gun dealers to do background checks on purchasers at guns shows should get a final vote in Oregon this week.

Passage of the bill, which Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber has promised to sign, would mark the first major new gun legislation in a decade for that state and would be seized on by gun opponents as a major momentum builder. But prospects of final legislative approval have shifted almost daily, and the bill's sponsor is still scrambling for enough votes in the state Senate.

Elsewhere, Illinois recently passed a new law requiring adults to store firearms where children don't have access.

And in Colorado and Utah, there is still political pressure for a special legislative session to deal with gun-control issues.

Beyond new restrictions, Mr. Sudbay says gun-control advocates "have had a lot of success on the defensive" this year. They've blocked moves by the National Rifle Association to ease restrictions in several states on carrying concealed weapons.

However, the NRA and those eager to limit restrictions on firearms have had their own gains this year, too. For instance, a dozen states have now enacted laws prohibiting city lawsuits against gun manufacturers, even as such suits steam ahead in a number of other states.

The most recent state to protect manufacturers was Texas, where Gov. George W. Bush signed a lawsuit-preemption bill in June.

And of course, so far, efforts in Congress to further restrict firearms have been stymied.

All this creates such a mixed picture, that predictions that the school massacre in Littleton would fundamentally change the politics of gun control are now open to question.

"Everyone said 'sea change' after Columbine," says Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative, Dallas-based think tank. "But I'm not seeing it."

While sea change may be an overstatement, California seems likely to alter the balance significantly.

Gun-control advocates consider the one-gun-per-month law, which exists in three other states, a particularly aggressive tool in curtailing arms on the black market. People who buy large quantities of guns often intend to turn around and peddle them to those not capable of making legal purchases, advocates say.

Whether or not Governor Davis signs that bill, he's on record supporting two other firearm bills in the legislature.

One would give California the nation's most comprehensive ban on semiautomatic firearms. California has banned specific models of these high-powered weapons for nearly a decade. But this measure goes further by providing generic descriptions of the firearms banned in an attempt to close a loophole that allowed manufacturers to create copycat models to circumvent the old law.

Davis also supports a bill in the works requiring handguns to pass firing and drop tests. Southern California is home to the nation's largest concentration of so-called junk-gun manufacturers, and passage of the safety-test law would be a major victory for gun-control advocates.

A bill requiring safety locks on handguns and rifles is also wending its way through the legislature, though the governor has not yet taken a position on it.

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