California lawmakers promised Tuesday to move cautiously as they consider tighter restrictions on handguns, assault rifles and ammunition purchases, proposals that would add to state regulations already among the toughest in the nation.
The chairmen of the Assembly and Senate public safety committees said during a joint legislative hearing that lawmakers will seek consensus as they look for ways to improve gun safety after recent mass shootings, particularly the Newtown, Conn., school massacre.
Proposed legislation includes taxing ammunition sales, outlawing possession of various weapons, and banning devises that allow rapid reloading.
"If there are legislative remedies, we want it to be effective and not divisive,'' said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, chairman of the Assembly committee.
The hearing came after New York approved the nation's toughest gun controls earlier this month by tightening an existing ban on assault-style rifles and prohibiting large-capacity ammunition magazines, among other changes. California Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the hearing was designed to set aside some of the emotion and get to the facts on gun violence and what reasonably can be done to improve public safety.
Yet Sen. Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, chairwoman of the Senate Public Safety Committee, said that because of the recent mass shootings, "we reached a tipping point in the country'' on the need for more firearm restrictions.
"In California, it brought back memories for us of 24 years ago at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton,'' she said.
Five children were killed and 30 wounded in 1989 at the school by Patrick Purdy in an attack that stands as a grim foreshadowing of other schoolyard shootings. Purdy fired more than 100 rounds from an AK-47-style assault rifle, leading California to adopt the nation's first limits on assault weapons.
Lawmakers watched a documentary on Tuesday about the Stockton shooting and heard testimony from former state Senate leaders who struggled to pass and tighten assault weapons restrictions in its wake.
They also listened as law enforcement officials, victims of gun violence, and gun-rights lobbyists sparred over the need for more regulations. Republican members of the committees said lawmakers should focus on mentally ill people, felons and others who own weapons in violation of existing laws.
They proposed devoting more money to erase a nearly 20,000-person backlog in a state Department of Justice program that confiscates firearms from individuals who bought them legally but were later convicted of a crime, treated for mental illness or subjected to domestic violence court orders.
Steinberg supported a proposal to spend $25 million to hire more Department of Justice agents to quickly reduce the backlog. Republicans also objected that Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's prisoner realignment law is putting more dangerous criminals in communities.
The 15-month-old law sends only the most serious offenders to state prisons. Ex-felons possessing weapons should be subjected to greater penalties and supervision as one way of reducing the danger, the GOP lawmakers said, a proposal that won support from Stephen Lindley, chief of the Department of Justice's Bureau of Firearms.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, told lawmakers that placing additional restrictions on law-abiding gun owners will have no effect. "If you continue to work on issues that affect guns, ammunition and law-abiding gun owners, you will continue to have the atrocities that we have seen because none of these laws will impact those people who one day are normal and the next day are insane or evil,'' he said.
Some members of both political parties objected that the restrictions would limit the rights of legal gun owners.
"California already has extremely strong gun laws. Law-abiding gun owners are not the problem,'' said Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido. Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, also questioned the effectiveness of additional restrictions. Sen. Joel Anderson, R-La Mesa, said restrictions on assault weapons can inspire a false sense of security because a shooter could just as easily use handguns to commit mass murder. Nearly a dozen gun-related bills have been proposed this year, and members of both parties are promising more will follow before next month's deadline for introducing legislation.
The bills include requiring ammunition buyers to show identification or undergo a background check, with large purchases reported to local law enforcement. Separately, state Attorney General Kamala Harris, who runs the Department of Justice, said Tuesday she will convene a leadership group on gun violence to consider what more can be done to prevent gun violence. She invited all 58 district attorneys to attend the group's first meeting Feb. 12 in Los Angeles.