California has gone further than any other state to prevent gun tragedies like those that have turned schools, day camps and office buildings into slaughterhouses. Just since July, Gov. Gray Davis has signed landmark measures banning assault guns and high-capacity ammunition magazines, limiting gun purchasers to one per month, requiring that new guns be sold with approved child safety locks and outlawing the cheap, unsafe handguns commonly called Saturday night specials.
These measures, which begin to take effect in January, will go a long way toward getting the most dangerous firearms off the streets and preventing the horrific accidents that can happen when curious children or untrained adults pick up a handgun. No other state has done this much. So why do we need to do more?
California's gun stockpile is chillingly huge. This state is home to an estimated 10% to 15% of the 200 million guns in civilian hands nationwide. That's 20 million to 30 million guns in California alone. But nobody knows precisely how many there are in the state or who has them--that's part of the problem. And California could enact the tightest, most comprehensive gun laws extant but still not stop firearms from coming across its border. Guns outlawed here arrive from other states in the trunks of cars, in the mail or by various other routes. That's why strong federal laws are key to real progress in cutting the proliferation of guns and the tragedy that they sow. As we have argued before, Congress should, at a minimum, outlaw assault guns and high-capacity magazines, mandate registration and licensing, ban Internet gun sales and require that all guns be sold with child safety locks. In the meantime, tough action by states like California puts pressure on Congress to do the same.
What else should California do?
* Move toward licensing gun owners and registering their firearms. Eleven states have some form of licensing, and a handful of others require registration. Only Hawaii requires both. Most sensible would be legislation that allows police to quickly trace any gun used in a crime and requires gun buyers to demonstrate that they can safely store and handle their weapons. Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda) and Assemblyman Mike Honda (D-San Jose) plan to present bills with these provisions in the next legislative session. They should require that prospective owners be fingerprinted and pass a competency test. California currently requires gun buyers to pass a minimal test or sit through a four-hour video course on gun safety. Gun dealers generally administer the written test; no hands-on safety training is required, nor must buyers show they can safely load, unload, store or fire guns. This is as reckless as licensing drivers without ever putting them behind the wheel.
* Repeal language in the California Constitution that has hampered localities seeking stronger gun laws than those the Legislature has imposed. Increasingly, the pressure for tougher gun laws comes from cities and counties. It is in those places that gun violence hits home. Local police and hospitals must absorb enormous public safety and health care costs because of shootings. And it's local residents, horrified and scared, who demand action. That's why local leaders including Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, Sheriff Lee Baca and Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti now support giving local jurisdictions more authority to control gun sales and possession. Some of the most creative ideas to do just that are coming from city and county officials; yet the gun lobby has long insisted that the state has the exclusive right to legislate in this area. Key court decisions, such as the California Supreme Court's 1998 ruling upholding West Hollywood's ban on the sale of Saturday night special handguns, are emboldening local leaders to do more. But state law should give localities a much freer rein. At least three attempts to lift state preemption died in the Legislature in recent years. It's time for another try.
* Step up enforcement of existing laws limiting gun possession. In the wake of a new finding that the number of federal weapons cases has dropped by more than a third in recent years, with California lagging far behind the rest of the nation, federal prosecutors announced last week that they will start prosecuting more gun crimes nationwide than they have in the past. This is good news. Last month Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer announced that he would no longer defend his predecessor's practice of continuing to register semiautomatic assault weapons declared illegal under a 1989 state law. Lockyer's decision, another big step toward safer streets, means that owners of almost 2,000 Uzis, AK-47s, AR-15s and 72 other types of assault guns will face a fine and imprisonment if they do not turn in their guns, destroy them or take them out of California. Lockyer should now vigorously prosecute any person with illegal assault guns.
Local law enforcement officials also need to take a much harder line on state laws that make it a crime for adults to leave a loaded gun around children or to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. Police and prosecutors, already stretched thin, sometimes decide it's not worth the effort to press these charges. But irresponsible gun owners pose a threat to everyone.