Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Comparing California and federal gun laws after Sandy Hook

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Assault weapons like these that were seized in a Moreno Valley raid are illegal in California.

President Obama on Wednesday called on Congress to re-enact an assault weapons ban and prohibit high capacity ammunition magazines. California already has those laws, and more.

The state broadly defines assault weapons — and bans them. It prohibits the sale of ammunition magazines that carry more than ten bullets.  And it’s closed what’s often been called the gun show loophole that allowed people to avoid background checks if they bought a gun from a private owner.

“Whenever you transfer a firearm from one person to another, you have to go through a firearms dealer and a background (check) is done,” said Steve Lindley, chief of the Bureau of Firearms for the California Department of Justice. “A lot of other states do not have that.”

Most states also don’t have California’s 10-day waiting period to buy a gun. Nor do they limit you to one new gun purchase a month. And starting in 2014, California law will require gun owners to register not just their handguns, but their rifles and other “long” guns.

RELATED: Comparing California and federal gun laws

So how would tougher federal gun laws affect California?  It’s simple. Gun control advocates – including many police chiefs – argue it’s too easy for Californians to obtain guns in neighboring states like Arizona that have less restrictive laws.

In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary shootings, State Senator Kevin de Leon of Los Angeles has proposed making California’s laws even tougher. He wants to require background checks for the purchase of ammunition.

“Ammunition is, in my opinion, the fuel that feeds the violence,” de Leon said.

Another proposal would prohibit semi-automatic weapons like AK-47s from having "bullet buttons," which make them easier to reload.

The proposals immediately drew criticism from gun rights groups, which also opposed a federal assault weapons ban.

“Who is government or any elected official to say this is what you need to protect yourself?  That is the height of arrogance,” said Sam Paredes, who is on the board of Gun Owners of California.

Parades said even with tough restrictions, Californians own more than 1 million assault-style weapons. But crimes involving them “are so rare,” he said.

For decades, gun regulation has been a hot topic in Golden State politics – with the overwhelmingly Democratic state generally approving more restrictive policies. 

It is one of only six states that place restrictions on people carrying guns. Sheriffs and police chiefs decide who can carry a weapon. In some counties, including Los Angeles and Orange, sheriffs issue virtually no permits.

Both federal and state laws prohibit felons and anyone who has a mental illness from owning a firearm. In California, 1.2 million people are prohibited from possessing a gun because they’ve been institutionalized for mental illness for at least 72 hours within the past 10 years, according to Lindley. He says the state Department of Justice is targeting some 6,000 of them who are believed to still have a gun.

“That’s the area that we’ve targeted the most here at the Bureau of Firearms,” Lindley said.  “We think it has the potential for the greatest public safety.”

Lindley noted the City of Los Angeles has two laws unique in California. One requires the city’s ammunition dealers to be licensed, to sell ammunition face-to-face instead of online, and requires gun dealers to report an accounting of their inventory twice a year to the LAPD. 

L.A. also sends letters to people during the 10-day waiting period that informs them of gun laws. Lindley said that seems to discourage some people from picking up their gun.

“They’ve seen an increase in the number of people who have not come back to purchase or pick up their firearm after starting the paperwork,” he said.

Lindley sais it was unclear why.

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