SACRAMENTO — Just two hours before shots were fired yet again at a California high school Thursday, the state Assembly passed the first bill of the year dealing with firearms, a measure banning the sale of guns from homes.
The legislation, which did not receive a single Republican vote, exempts gun dealers in counties with fewer than 100,000 people and those who sell firearms defined as curios or relics.
If passed by the Senate and signed by Gov. Gray Davis, the bill, AB 22, could cut the number of gun outlets in California from about 3,000 to 700.
"There's a tremendous proliferation of guns in our society, and this bill will allow us to keep better track of where they're sold," said Assemblyman Alan Lowenthal (D-Long Beach), the bill's sponsor. "Hopefully, it will mean that fewer firearms wind up in the wrong hands."
Lowenthal pushed a similar measure last year but withdrew it after Davis requested a timeout on gun legislation. Asked whether the recent school shootings have made the governor open to new gun laws, a spokeswoman said Davis will evaluate proposals as they cross his desk.
"The [shootings] make it difficult to separate the emotional response from the policy response," said spokeswoman Hilary McLean. "We'll just have to see what comes his way."
Lowenthal's bill was opposed by gun owner groups, and a string of Republicans stood on the Assembly floor to denounce it. Critics say the bill is unnecessary and interferes with local government's control over land use.
Lowenthal said home-based dealers receive far less government oversight and often sell guns without obtaining necessary clearances.
He said agents in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms spend about 80% of their time investigating "kitchen table dealers," but have trouble tracking their operations in part because of erratic hours.
Lowenthal added that a 1998 federal study tracking guns used in crimes in Los Angeles found that a majority were sold through home-based dealers. The study said "the privacy and flexibility" enjoyed by residential dealers "can make oversight a tough task indeed."
"There are six to seven times as many gun dealers in California as there are McDonald's restaurants," Lowenthal said. "If you get a license, you can sell guns right out your front door."
Among those who spoke in support of the bill was Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), who said she saw the effects of guns during her 20 years teaching in urban high schools.
In her early years, "we had gangs and we had fights and on Monday everyone returned to school." Later, as firearms became increasingly available, "the kids did not come back to school Monday. Because they were dead."
Despite Lowenthal's prediction that reducing gun outlets would cut the proliferation of illegal firearms, Republicans disagreed, calling AB 22 "a bill in search of a problem."
"This bill would do absolutely nothing to make California streets safer from the gun violence that we all deplore," said Assemblyman Dick Dickerson (R-Redding). Instead, he said, the bill would "interfere with legitimate, honest people who do a minimal business."
Of the about 3,000 licensed gun dealers in the state, about 2,300 operate out of homes, statistics show. In response to such numbers, more than a dozen cities have adopted bans on residential sales. Los Angeles outlawed them, but few of the county's other 87 municipalities have done so, Lowenthal said.
Several other firearms bills are pending in the Legislature, including two measures establishing a licensing system and requiring gun owners to pass written and field tests to qualify.