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California and the West

Assembly OKs Bill Limiting Sales of Handguns

Legislature: Democrats, seizing on public sentiment after the Colorado massacre, push to set a maximum of one weapon a month per person. Critics say the measure is unnecessary and would be ineffective.

April 23, 1999|MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Seizing a wave of anger brought on by the Colorado school massacre, the California Assembly on Thursday narrowly approved a controversial measure to limit the supply of handguns in the state.

The 15 grisly deaths at a high school in Littleton, Colo., gave stern-faced lawmakers an opportunity "to start to prevent these weapons from falling into the hands of kids," said Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), author of the bill, which would limit the purchase of handguns to one a month.

Nearly two years ago, the Assembly rejected a similar restriction. But in January, Los Angeles became the first city in California to prohibit the sale of more than one handgun per month to a single person.

Knox and other Democrats said the Assembly's action on concealable weapons was fueled by concern over what happened halfway across the nation, even though in addition to semiautomatic handguns the Colorado killers used sawed-off shotguns and other weapons that would not be covered by Knox's proposal.

Forty-one Democrats--the bare majority of Assembly members--sent the measure, AB 202, to the state Senate, where supporters are optimistic about its chances. A similar measure was approved by the upper house in 1997 before it was killed in the Assembly.

Gov. Gray Davis hasn't taken a position on the bill.

Knox cited the remarks of Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Wilmington), who typically abstains from voting on gun matters, as especially moving during Thursday's somber 90-minute debate. Floyd voted for the bill.

Choked with emotion, the usually flippant Floyd, an Army sergeant during the Korean War, said he watched TV news accounts of the massacre and couldn't sleep Wednesday night, haunted by flashbacks of dead bodies he had seen in Korea nearly half a century ago.

"There's a smell about running blood, there's a smell about burned flesh. Hell, it never bothered me, but last night I couldn't sleep," the veteran lawmaker told reporters. "You can't imagine that smell," Floyd said as his colleagues listened intently and dozens of girls, in the chamber for Bring Your Daughter to Work Day, watched.

The Assembly action came as the Clinton administration said it hoped the Colorado shootings will prompt passage of "reasonable restrictions on the possession of guns," including some aimed at keeping them away from children.

U.S. Deputy Atty. Gen. Eric Holder said a package of gun control bills will be sent to Congress in several weeks.

Also on Wednesday, lawmakers in Michigan and Colorado postponed action on bills to make it easier to carry a concealed weapon. Debate was canceled in the Florida House on a proposal to ban local government lawsuits against gun makers.

In California there is currently no limitation on the number of pistols or revolvers a person may buy.

Retail gun dealers say it's relatively rare for consumers other than police agencies to buy handguns in bulk.

Knox's bill, backed by the city of Los Angeles, is aimed at choking off the supply of guns to teenagers, gang members and criminals. He and other supporters contend that "straw purchasers" buy the guns legally and then sell them on the black market to criminals who cannot buy them legally.

Opponents, mostly Republicans, assailed the measure as unneeded government intrusion into the lives of law-abiding citizens.

Other critics contended that existing laws barring gun sales to minors also need to be enforced more strongly, and questioned whether limiting handgun sales to one a month would make a dent in the supply of black market guns.

"No one is going to be any safer," said Assemblyman Bret Granlund (R-Yucaipa), "there are millions and millions of guns out there."

Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Northridge) said that as a sixth-grade student he brought a rifle to school for a National Rifle Assn. hunter safety course. "A generation ago, guns were far more prevalent and easy to obtain," McClintock said.

But now, he complained, the nation's culture has changed, undermined by the loss of religious faith and the fragmentation of families. Many individuals, he said, no longer heed moral standards, resulting in tragedies like the slayings in Littleton.

GOP lawmakers did win approval of a resolution of sympathy for the Colorado victims and pressed for passage of school safety legislation.

Other Republicans urged Davis to call a special legislative session on the issue.

Even before Thursday's Assembly action, a measure to toughen the state's 10-year-old ban on military-style assault guns had cleared the Senate Public Safety Committee and was awaiting another hearing in the Appropriations Committee, which is expected to approve it.

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Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this story.

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