It has been widely speculated the Monday’s mass shooting at Virginia Tech University will spur new firearms legislation. However, it appears unlikely the tragedy will have much effect in California, where firearms statutes are already strong and numerous changes in firearms enforcement already were underway.
Perhaps the most overt change has come over at the Department of Justice, where incoming Attorney General Jerry Brown has demoted the Firearms Division to bureau status, one step down the bureaucratic ladder. It was elevated to division status in 1999 under former Attorney General Bill Lockyer.
Over in the Legislature, gun-control advocates are looking to regulate ammunition–and are likely to tout claims that California’s strong gun laws would have likely stopped the Virginia Tech killer. Meanwhile, there are both Democratic and Republican bills that could inch the state closer to an all-purpose ID system for gun owners.
Changes at DOJ[/B]
On February 28, employees at the state DOJ received an e-mail stating that, “After carefully considering how the Department of Justice can make the best use of its law enforcement resources, the Attorney General has decided to revert the historical standard of including the firearms and gambling control programs within the Division of Law Enforcement.”
“I don’t think that indicates a priority change,” said Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for the DOJ, when asked about the moves. “It’s an administrative change.”
Shortly after this e-mail went out, the longtime head of the DOJ’s Firearms Division announced his retirement. Randy Rossi was appointed in 1999, when Lockyer elevated the Firearms Bureau to division status, reporting directly to the AG. Rossi’s last day was Friday. He was not available for comment.
The Bureau of Firearms educates people about gun laws, takes enforcement actions against illegal sellers and maintains databases on firearms sales and other statistics.
Tom Dresslar, a longtime spokesman for Lockyer at the DOJ and now at the treasurer’s office, said that Lockyer had “no quarrel” with Brown’s move. Lockyer’s decision to elevate the firearms program was a reflection of the times, he said. In the wake of two horrific incidents–the 1989 killing of five schoolchildren in Stockton and the murders of eight people at a San Francisco law firm in 1993–the Legislature had passed a raft of new guns laws for the DOJ to enforce.
“It probably should have always had bureau status,” said William Vizzard, a criminal-justice professor at California State University at Sacramento. “Its field operations were always very, very small.”
Lockyer’s choice at the time was largely “symbolic,” Vizzard said, though it is still likely that Brown won’t be as aggressive on firearms issues. In terms of sheer bang for the law-enforcement buck, he said, the state is better off pouring money into the Bureau of Forensic Services and the immense backlog of potential DNA data around unsolved cases.
Brown’s moves may have caught some off guard, however, given that he aggressively used gun and gang issues in his campaign against Republican candidate Charles Poochigian. For instance, Brown repeatedly made an issue of his call to ban .50 caliber rifle ammunition, something Poochigian opposed.
Former DOJ staffer Mark Chekal-Bain, who worked with but not for Rossi and the Firearms Division, said that higher status did have an effect. While it didn’t change the laws or how they enforced them, the higher status allowed Rossi to attract a strong staff, said Chekal-Bain, who has also been a state director for Americans for Gun Safety.
“You have to go through more layers of bureaucracy,” Chekal-Bain said. “It makes it harder to be a cutting-edge innovator.”
[B]Little new legislation[/B]
“One reason we haven’t been as active on the firearms front is we have been able to pass some of the most comprehensive firearms laws in the nation,” said Senator Jack Scott, D-Pasadena.
Scott, whose 27-year-old son, Adam, was killed in an accidental shooting in 1993, has been one of the more active legislators on gun issues in recent years. But in terms of new action after this tragedy, he is looking more closely at campus safety. He’ll hold a hearing on the topic on May 2.
He praised an early warning alert system installed on all 23 campuses of the CSU system that can blast out warnings to faculty and students over the phone, e-mail, Web sites, campus electronic marquees, bullhorns and loudspeakers. Virginia Tech officials were criticized for their slow initial response to the shootings.
Both Chekal-Bain and Irwin Nowick, a Senate Rules Committee consultant who is considered one of the leading firearms-law experts in California, noted the California gun laws would have prevented shooter Cho Seung-Hui from buying guns in California because he had spent short stints in mental-health facilities in late 2005. Scott and Nowick both said he would as have been limited to 10 round magazines; one of Seung-Hui’s guns reportedly had magazines of at least 15 rounds.
Nowick said firearms enforcement is a bigger job in California than in other states, for the simple reason that we have more gun laws. According to estimates from the DOJ and other sources, he said, in the average state about one in 200 adults is legally barred from owning a gun. In California, it’s closer to one in 50.
Bullet bills pending[/B]
One of the more aggressive firearms bills currently in the Legislature is AB 362 by Assemblyman Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles. This bill would require records to be kept on ammunition sales and bar people who are prohibited from owning guns from buying ammo.
Like many firearms bills, this one was inspired by a horrific killing in the author’s district. On December 20, 9-year-old Charuphah Wongwisetsiri was in the kitchen with her mother when a stray bullet from a gang shooting came through the wall and hit her. She died six days later.
“In the state of California, it’s much more difficult to purchase a can of spray paint than a box of ammunition,” De Leon said.
There is a very specific reason gun-control proponents in California are increasingly looking at ammunition sales, said lobbyist Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California.
“They’ve done just about everything they can to firearms except ban them,” Paredes said.
On March 9, a federal appeals court struck down the District of Columbia’s outright ban on almost all gun ownership. It was a rare win for pro-gun forces on Second Amendment grounds. The 2-1 decision essentially stated that the government could limit guns, but not ban them outright. It has been widely predicted that the case could make it to the Supreme Court.
Vizzard noted that for several years after the federal government passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, ammunition sellers had to keep sales logs. However, that part of the act was revoked, he said, after law-enforcement agencies testified that they rarely, if ever, solved crimes using these records.
However, gun-control proponents are hoping that more sophisticated tools will put teeth into ammunition limits. Assemblyman Paul Koretz put forth AB 352 last year. This unsuccessful bill called for “microstamping” ammunition, putting tiny serial numbers on cartridges so they could be traced from crime scenes. Koretz successor, Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, has revived the bill as AB 1471.
Moving closer to a ‘driver’s license for guns'[/B]
A pair of dissimilar legislators have put forth bills that could incrementally move California toward an all-purpose ID system for guns and ammunition. While gun-rights proponents have long opposed such an overarching system, they are increasingly finding waiting periods and other restrictions onerous, Nowick said.
Senator Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, has put forth SB 327. It would call on the state DOJ to maintain a registry on the name, address, identification of, place of birth (state or country), complete telephone number, occupation, sex, description, and all legal names and aliases ever used by the owner or person being loaned the particular handgun.”
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Martin Garrick, R-Carlsbad, has submitted AB 1105. It calls for a study into the state’s waiting period for handgun purchases.
Nowick and others have noted that these positions have something to offer each other. Gun-control advocates want centralized, interconnected information on gun purchases. Gun supporters, meanwhile, might go for a comprehensive ID-card system if it lessened or eliminated waiting periods. But Migden and Garrick are pretty far apart still.
“Garrick wants a waiting-period reduction,” Nowick said, “and Migden isn’t going to go there.”
Contact Malcolm Maclachlan at