Two former California Senate leaders sat before lawmakers Tuesday and warned them about the death threats sure to come their way as they embark on new gun control efforts – death threats that, ironically, drove one of of them, Don Perata, to arm himself for protection.
But Perata and David Roberti, both former Democratic Senate presidents pro tem who played a role in passing landmark gun control legislation in California, urged members of the joint public safety committees to toughen California's gun and ammunition measures in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., tragedy and other mass shootings.
Perata, of Oakland, described gun violence as a "pandemic" that has spread far beyond the violent crack-cocaine drug wars that plagued part of his constituency when he was in office.
"It's no longer East Oakland, little black faces being affected," he said. "We all are."
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Already this session, legislators have proposed a series of gun-related bills, despite California's reputation as having the nation's most restrictive gun laws. The proposals would, among other actions, regulate and tax ammunition sales and end the "grandfathering" of weapons that are now illegal to purchase but still legal to possess.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg added to that list after the hearing ended when the Sacramento Democrat announced a bill, co-authored by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that would spend more to confiscate about 40,000 guns likely in the hands of Californians prohibited from having them.
Stephen Lindley, chief of the state Department of Justice's Bureau of Firearms, testified during the hearing that the Armed Prohibited Persons System has identified nearly 20,000 Californians who are believed to possess firearms illegally. Those people have been linked to more than 38,000 handguns and 1,000 assault weapons.
Upon questioning from Steinberg, Lindley said the department is not adequately staffed to address the problem. He said it would cost about $25 million over three years to hire enough agents to eliminate the backlog.
Committee members did not vote on or discuss any proposed bills by name during the hearing, which lasted more than three hours. They promised rigorous discourse on the subject and respect for opposing opinions, though partisan lines clearly began to emerge.
Roberti, of Los Angeles, and Perata recounted their gun control efforts in the wake of the 1989 shooting at Stockton's Cleveland Elementary School, in which five children died and 30 other people were injured.
They said the political climate they faced was difficult. Perata, however, pointed out that Democrats now enjoy a supermajority in both houses.
"Take it out for a ride," he said. "See what you can do with it."
Emeryville Police Chief Ken James, who also serves as chairman of the California Police Chiefs Association's firearms committee, spoke of the daily reality of gun violence on the streets and the threat it poses to law enforcement officers.
Many factors contribute to gun violence, James said, but "there's one common denominator: the gun."
Not working to better control that piece "would be unreasonable and irresponsible," James argued.
A representative of the National Rifle Association who was scheduled to speak at the hearing did not show. But Tom Pedersen of the California Rifle and Pistol Association urged legislators to instead focus on gauging whether existing gun laws are being enforced properly.
Specifically, Pedersen suggested that more needs to be done to ensure the Department of Justice is receiving accurate and timely information about people prohibited from owning guns.
"The system is only as good as the data entered into it," he said.
Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, warned that further gun control will infringe on the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens without affecting overall gun violence.
"You will continue to have these atrocities we have seen because none of the laws will impact those people who one day are normal and the next day are evil," he said.