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COURSEY: Baby steps on gun control

Published: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 8, 2013 at 11:54 a.m.

A piece of gun-control legislation passed the California Senate this week without a single dissenting vote.

But don’t let that fool you.

Senate Bill 140, by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is a common-sense piece of clean-up legislation that allows $24 million in already collected firearm-purchase fees to be used to enforce a law prohibiting guns to be possessed by felons, violent criminals, domestic violence perpetrators and the mentally unstable.

Hard to argue against that, right? Well, no. Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, couldn’t bring himself to vote for the bill. Though there are an estimated 20,000 Californians in those categories who illegally possess weapons right now, Nielsen abstained from the vote to go after them.

What’s wrong with taking guns away from people whom the law prohibits from having them? Well, here’s what the Firearms Policy Coalition, which promotes itself as “the future of Second Amendment rights advocacy,” says about Leno’s bill:

“Takes millions of unconstitutionally-collected Dealer Record of Sales (DROS) funds to compensate for the failure of more than 500 local law enforcement agencies not enforcing existing gun laws. Uses DROS funds to pay for (California Department of Justice) expansion, including raids and confiscation of weapons from those whom the State deems to be prohibited based on unreliable data from an untrustworthy list.”

The National Rifle Association and other gun-rights groups also opposed the bill.

“This is not an easy decision for me,” said Sen. Joel Anderson of La Mesa, one of eight Republicans who supported the bill and signed on as one of its co-authors.

Think about that. If it’s hard for a legislator to support enforcing existing laws (California is the only state that actually takes guns away from people prohibited from owning them), how difficult will it be to pass new gun-control legislation?

We’ll find out soon enough. Also this week, the U.S. Senate saw its first vote regarding gun legislation since the issue was moved to the front burner by the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in December. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted to stiffen criminal penalties for people who legally buy firearms but then give them to someone else who uses them in a crime or who is legally prohibited from owning the gun.

The committee’s vote on that one was 11-7, with all 10 Democrats in support and one Republican, Charles Grassley of Iowa. If it’s that close on beefing up an existing law, imagine what the politics will look like when they actually get around to talking about universal background checks for gun buyers, limits on the size of ammunition magazines and California Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s proposal for a federal ban on assault weapons.

Actually, you don’t have to imagine, because Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., gave us a preview when he spoke out this week in defense of the AR-15 assault rifle, one of which he owns. He spoke about the possibility of “armed gangs roaming around neighborhoods” in the wake of a natural disaster and said, for his family, “the deterrent effect of an AR-15 is greater than that of a double-barreled shotgun.”

Which may in fact be true. But as Attorney General Eric Holder pointed out, it may not be the best idea to have a bunch of people with AR-15s out on the streets “in a post-Katrina environment.”

And this is just at the committee level. These bills then will be vetted by the full Senate and the House of Representatives, just as the California legislation now must go to the Assembly.

It has taken a long time for America to become the most gun-happy nation on Earth (based on gun ownership data). With legislators such as Graham and Nielsen, and lobbying groups such as the NRA and the Firearms Policy Coalition, it’s going to be a long, painful process to change that.

(Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.)

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