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Whose Peace Sign is Bigger?

The gun control war pits the Golden State against the Empire State.

For years, California had the toughest gun control laws in the nation. But last January, in the wake of 2012’s horrific mass shootings, New York governor Andrew Cuomo pushed through legislation that many believe gave his state the edge. Now, lawmakers in Sacramento are working to get it back.

“If you just strictly compare firearms laws, California is still stronger,” says Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney at the San Francisco–based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “But regulating ammunition has been a huge hole in our laws for years. If we fill it, we would be back on par with New York.”

Among the most closely watched measures is AB 48, authored by Assemblymember Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, which would require ammo dealers to report all sales to the state Department of Justice and would ban the sale of kits that convert ammo feeders into high-capacity magazines. Another key bill is SB 53, from Los Angeles State Senator Kevin de León, which would make statewide a law now in place in Sacramento and Los Angeles that requires ammo buyers to pass an annual background check and obtain a permit. “When bullets are easier to get than pseudoephedrine, something is really wrong,” says Skinner.

It isn’t all about bullets, however. State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg has introduced legislation that would prohibit the sale of many semiautomatic weapons with detachable magazines, a much broader restriction than New York’s. Freshman San Francisco Assemblymember Phil Ting has coauthored a bill that would require gun owners to carry liability insurance to cover damages caused by their weapons. Other bills target gun traffickers and felons.

With Democrats holding near supermajorities in both legislative chambers, most of these bills have a strong chance of getting to the governor. But it won’t happen without resistance from gun rights advocates and, perhaps, even some conservative Democrats, such as Blue Dogs from the Central Valley. Still, Sam Paredes, executive director of the gun rights group Gun Owners of California, expects most, if not all, to pass. “Democrats,” he says, “have the votes to pass anything they want.”

Of course, Governor Jerry Brown, who holds ultimate veto power, is still a bit of a mystery when it comes to gun control. He has spoken publicly about his own gun ownership, and he has consistently avoided taking a public stance on gun control efforts underway in the nation’s capital. Chuck Michel, an attorney who represents the California Rifle and Pistol Association, doubts that Brown will give gun control proponents the rubber stamp they want. “The devil is in the detail in these bills,” he says. “And this governor is pretty good at finding the devil.”

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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