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California's Democratic lawmakers push for tighter gun control

A case of bullets is seen next to an iPhone at the Los Angeles gun club in Los Angeles, January 23, 2013. Picture taken January 23, 2013. RE
A case of bullets is seen next to an iPhone at the Los Angeles gun club in Los Angeles, January 23, 2013. Picture taken January 23, 2013. RE

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - Democratic lawmakers in California, critical of Congress' failure to pass significant gun control legislation after mass shootings in Colorado and Connecticut last year, advanced a package of bills on Wednesday that would tighten a ban on semi-automatic firearms and further regulate ammunition sales.

The bills, which passed the state Senate mostly along party lines, would outlaw all new sales of semi-automatic weapons with removable magazines, ban ammunition clips that can fire more than 10 rounds, and make it illegal for people convicted of drug and alcohol felonies to own a gun for 10 years.

The package of seven bills would also require people who want to buy ammunition in the state to undergo background checks and get a permit.

But top officials in both houses say privately that some of the measures could be removed from the package in the state Assembly to assuage concerns of moderate Democrats before the bills reach the desk of Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

The bills are the latest in a nationwide effort by Democrats to enact tough gun control laws at the state level, an acknowledgement of the political difficulty that lawmakers at the national level have had in reaching compromise on the issue.

Last month, the U.S. Senate rejected a plan to expand background checks for gun buyers despite a major lobbying campaign by President Barack Obama. States including Connecticut, Colorado, Maryland and New York have passed their own gun control laws in response to the two massacres, while Arkansas, Wyoming and South Dakota loosened gun restrictions.

"The action is with the states," said California Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg. "In the absence of national policy, we feel that we have the responsibility to do something."

California gun laws are already among the toughest in the nation, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The state has banned most assault weapons, requires sales be made by a licensed dealer, including at gun shows, and imposes a 10-day waiting period, among other regulations.

SWING DISTRICTS

But the state Assembly, despite its many liberal members and where Democrats enjoy a supermajority, has moved toward the center on gun issues, with Democrats last year winning seats in districts in suburban and rural areas where voters are more likely to own guns.

"The Assembly Democratic Caucus is more moderate on this issue because it has members from rural and swing districts," said Steven Maviglio, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, a Democrat.

Perez himself is a gun owner, Maviglio said.

"It's the same issue the Democrats face nationally," said David Mark, who edits the California-based policy website Politix. "Not all the members represent super-liberal areas."

The Assembly on Wednesday passed its own gun control measure with Perez's support that would ban kits used to convert single-fire guns into semi-automatics. That measure would also increase to five years the length of time mental health patients who threaten violence are banned from owning firearms. Currently, they must wait six months.

But Democratic Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, who authored that bill, said the assembly was less likely to support measures that go beyond closing loopholes in existing laws.

"In the assembly you've got a really large number of new members," Skinner said. "If they represent an area that has high gun-ownership numbers they're nervous about that."

Even in the Senate, four Democrats opposed at least some of the measures in the package.

"Fewer than one percent of the people killed with guns in the U.S. are killed with assault weapons," said Democrat Roderick Wright of Inglewood, who voted against five of the seven bills and abstained on another.

Republican state Senator Jim Nielsen said mental health issues, not guns with large magazines, were behind mass killings.

"These mass murderers have one thing in common," he said. "It's not magazines allowing multiple shots. It's mental health problems."

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Beech)

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