Capitol hearing upstaged by gun seizure backlog

12:39 AM, Jan 30, 2013   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA - Whether by design or not, a much anticipated state Capitol hearing on gun violence offered a prime example of how additional laws may not always translate into fewer guns in dangerous situations.

Officials from the California Department of Justice delivered a sobering statistic to a joint hearing of Senate and Assembly public safety committees: thousands of Californians no longer eligible to have a firearm, yet still in possession of tens of thousands of handguns and semi-automatic weapons.

And why? No funding to pay for a major statewide sweep.

"Despite our best efforts, the bureau does not have the funding or resources to keep up with this annual influx of cases to reduce the backlog," said Stephen Lindley, chief of the firearm bureau at the state Department of Justice.

In all, officials say the Armed Prohibited Persons System (APPS) database has 19,770 people listed as illegally possessing a firearm -- for reasons including felony convictions, histories of violence, severe mental illness, and more.

And those Californians have, it's estimated, 40,210 firearms: 38,563 handguns and 1,647 semi-automatic rifles designated as assault weapons.

The cost to go get all those guns, officials told the legislators at Tuesday's hearing: about $25 million.

"We ought to get those guns out of the hands of people who are prohibited," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

By day's end, Steinberg and fellow Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, announced legislation to start finding that money.

That effort may find bipartisan support in the Capitol, but new legislation with an eye toward guns and gun restrictions is likely to fall into familiar fights.  The joint legislative hearing, attended by fewer Republicans than Democrats, produced largely predictable diverging views as to whether gun violence is largely a function of too many loopholes and high-powered weapons with no reasonable purpose (Democrats) or criminals who won't be deterred by the fact that they could one day be charged with even more crimes for their violent actions (Republicans).

About a dozen high profile bills have been introduced at the statehouse in the last few weeks on the issue of guns, gun safety, and gun violence.  Some -- including ways to limit the fast reloading of otherwise legal high powered rifles -- are repeats of Capitol fights from the past.  Others, including efforts to tax or register ammunition, seem to offer a new front in the ongoing battles.

And two former legislative leaders testified Tuesday that those battles are long and tough for supporters of additional gun control.

"It's a rough, rough business," former Senate pro Tem Don Perata told the joint committee.  The Oakland Democrat fought several gun control battles during his tenure in the Assembly and Senate, and described efforts at intimidation from critics, including the day a single bullet was left on his desk.

Perata offered what almost amounted to praise for gun rights supporters.

"What you have with the NRA is a very powerful gun lobby with religious fervor," he said.  "That's a potent combination. We don't have that on our side."

David Roberti, a Democrat who represented Los Angeles who served for more than two decades in the Legislature with most of his time as Senate pro Tem, reminded the legislators that gun control bills failed in Sacramento after two high profile incidents -- the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1968 and the assassinations of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco in 1979.

But the murder of five children at Stockton's Cleveland Elementary School on January 17, 1989 was different.

"It shocked California," said Roberti, who said then Gov. George Deukmejian quickly made it known that he'd sign a gun control bill, thus giving political cover to some of his fellow Republicans on the assault weapon ban written by Roberti.

(It's also worth remembering that Roberti beat back a 1994 recall effort led by the National Rifle Association.)

Legislators sitting on the joint panel, as expected, debated whether there is a problem that goes beyond the events like December's mass murder at a Newtown, Conn. elementary school.

"We need to let go of just concern about mass shootings," said Assemblymember Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.  "We have to look at the number of shootings, whether they create death or not, as part of this epidemic."

And on the other side, Republicans said a rush to legislate won't help, and might hurt.

"What gun isn't lethal?" asked Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego.

Gun rights advocates agreed.

"You will continue to have the atrocities that we have seen," said Sam Peredes of Gun Owners of California on the idea of new laws.  "Because none of these will impact those people who are one day normal, the next day insane, or evil."

The hearing also came on the same day that Attorney General Kamala Harris invited district attorneys from all 58 counties to participate on a special gun violence council, with a first meeting to be held in February in Los Angeles.


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