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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Giving Gun Control a License to Make Sense

April 23, 2001|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — It's true, guns don't kill people. Bullets do.

Take away the ammo and a gun becomes about as lethal as a vegetable stake.

That's why requiring a license to buy ammunition has always seemed to me like sensible gun control. But it has never caught on with most politicians. Just doesn't have the sex appeal of banning nasty-looking assault weapons or Saturday night specials.

The L.A. City Council, however, is taking the first step toward what inevitably will be statewide law as California becomes more densely populated: the licensing of ammo buyers.

Under the L.A. proposal, adopted by the council and now being drafted into ordinance form for a final vote, anyone buying ammunition in the city would need a license--euphemistically called a permit. There'd be a 10-day waiting period and criminal background check--as there already is for any firearms purchase--and a $14 fee. The permit would have to be renewed annually.

"We have a state law that says criminals aren't allowed to buy ammunition, but there's no way now that an ammunition seller can know who's legal and who's not," notes council member Mike Feuer, a joint sponsor with colleague Cindy Miscikowski.

But couldn't a criminal just drive outside the city and load up on bullets? Sure, Feuer responds, but ammo licensing has to start somewhere. And California gun controls often have started in L.A.: the ban on Saturday night specials, the limit of one handgun purchase per month, trigger locks . . .

Says Feuer advisor Daniel Hinerfeld: "Part of this is to create pressure on the Legislature."

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There probably aren't enough votes yet in the Legislature to pass statewide ammo licensing. But there is a strong move toward requiring a license to buy a handgun.

Two similar bills have cleared their initial committees in the Senate and Assembly--one sponsored by Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), the other by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco).

These bills would require a background check and 10-day waiting period, same as now. But handgun buyers also would need to show they can safely handle a weapon--load it, fire it, clean it--and pass a written safety test. Plus, they'd have to leave a thumbprint with law enforcement. Fees would be in the $40 range. A license would be good for five years.

"Today, practically anyone can walk into a gun store, sleep through a safety video, wait 10 days and take home a weapon that can kill people," Shelley says. "We're proposing something very simple: Submit a thumb print so your background can be traced . . . demonstrate you can safely handle the gun."

The biggest battle is expected to be on the Assembly floor, where perhaps a half-dozen Democrats are leery of the gun lobby. Most Republicans routinely oppose gun controls--one reason California voters haven't been electing many of them lately.

The key is Gov. Gray Davis. His support--at least tacit--may be needed to gain Assembly passage. Some Democrats in swing districts won't risk voting for the bill if they believe the governor is just going to veto it.

Last year, Davis declared a moratorium on major new gun controls. But after the legislative session, the governor hinted to me that he might support licensing.

"You have to take a drivers test to drive a car," he pointed out. "You have to pass a written exam. You have to demonstrate some competence. That's a concept people are comfortable with."

Ultimately, I suspect, Californians will become comfortable with requiring a license to buy any firearm.

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But this state probably has gone about as far as it can--or should--in outlawing specific guns. Magazines now are limited to 10 rounds. That hits assault weapons. Sales of most so-called Saturday night specials have been banned. What's left have been renamed pocket rockets and they're being targeted in L.A. city.

The gun used by the alleged teen killer at a Santee high school was a .22-caliber revolver. Later, it was a 12-gauge shotgun that a young man allegedly packed into an El Cajon high school, shooting five. These guns are basic Americana--.22s and 12-gauges--and aren't going anywhere.

The legislative effort now is to demand smart handguns that only can be fired by their owners--and safer guns that, for example, clearly indicate when they're loaded. Also, to assure that gun owners respect their deadly toys and aren't societal misfits.

And yes, there's too much sicko violence from Hollywood.

Gunners should be good guys and qualified. Shooting for that goal, we need to require a license for everything from barrels to buckshot.

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