California governor signs ban on assault weapons

Act closes loopholes in 1989 measure, called tougher than federal law

July 20, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN FRANCISCO -- Six years ago this month, a disgruntled businessman named Gian Luigi Ferri took two TEC-9 semiautomatic pistols into the office tower at 101 California St. and, in less than 15 minutes, killed eight people and wounded six others, before fatally shooting himself.

The sound of those shots has rung through California politics ever since, helping to inspire a long-running debate over gun control that reached a milestone yesterday when Gov. Gray Davis signed into law the nation's toughest and most comprehensive ban on assault-style weapons.

It passed the state legislature by 2-1 margins last week, after years of partisan feuding and the veto of a similar measure by Davis' Republican predecessor, Pete Wilson, last year.

"My friends, guns do kill people," Davis said at an elaborate signing ceremony at the San Francisco Hall of Justice, surrounded by a sea of highway patrol and police officers and relatives of the victims of the 101 California shootings. "In short, assault weapons on our street are an assault on our common values."

Action at state level

Even as Congress battled to a fierce deadlock over gun control after the Columbine High School shootings this spring, state legislatures were passing measures.

Political professionals in both parties here say the California bill's passage reflects a steady shift in public opinion and political winds in a state that first passed a law banning dozens of specific weapons in 1989, after five children were shot to death in the yard of an elementary school in Stockton.

Gun manufacturers eluded that law by changing the names and model numbers of the banned weapons. The new measure aims to close that loophole by outlawing characteristics instead of specific weapons, essentially banning the manufacture, import or sale of any semiautomatic rifles or pistols that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, or can be easily concealed, or have any one of various accessories such as pistol grips or folding stocks -- a stricter standard than the federal ban on some 20 types of assault weapons.

The new law also makes it a crime to manufacture, import, sell or give away any magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

Earlier yesterday, Davis signed a separate measure barring any individual from buying more than one handgun in a month.

"This is a prototype for reasonable gun-control legislation, and if it can be done in California I would argue that it can be done in the United States as a whole," said Sen. Don Perata, a Democrat and a former Alameda County school teacher who sponsored the assault weapons measure. "This state is large enough and diverse enough to reflect the diversity of Congress.

"This is not, as many people would think, a progressive state. There are ways in which it's pretty conservative."

Crazy quilt of laws

In the Northeast, Connecticut and New Jersey ban the sales of assault weapons, but New York state does not, and while New Jersey prohibits the sale of ammunition clips with more than 15 rounds, Connecticut and New York have no such bans.

None of those three states limits the number of handguns that someone can buy in a month, though Maryland, South Carolina, Virginia and Los Angeles limit such sales to one a month.

The ban on assault weapons, which takes effect Jan. 1, may be largely symbolic. No one knows for certain how many such weapons exist in California, and owners of guns covered by the ban will have a year to register their weapons or face penalties, up to $500 for first-time offenders.

Pub Date: 7/20/99

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