After Friday’s tragic shootings in Connecticut, all eyes are on President Barack Obama and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s efforts to introduce federal gun control legislation. But real action is happening on the local and state level, too. As a number of states have Democratic legislatures and governors — including Illinois, Colorado, Massachusetts, Connecticut and, of course, California — look for them to dust off previously shelved gun control laws.
Right here in California, state Sen. Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, plans to propose legislation that would require anyone wanting to buy ammunition to get a permit. Other topics ripe for state regulation include gun shows and pawn shops.
Here in San Francisco, City Attorney Dennis Herrera has publicly requested that the San Francisco Employees’ Retirement System divest all assets from “firearms-related interests.”
And state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has vowed to re-introduce legislation closing a loophole that allows Californians to possess semi-automatic weapons.
State law prohibits the possession of “assault weapons,” which includes semi-automatic rifles and pistols. Inspired in part by the 1993 shooting at San Francisco’s 101 California St. where a shooter used semi-automatic handguns to kill eight people and himself while injuring six more, the underlying goal of banning these weapons was to prevent people from possessing guns that could rapidly fire and be reloaded. But defining what constitutes a semi-automatic weapon is tricky, and states have struggled with different ways to clarify which weapons are unlawful.
This is where we find the loophole.
The ability to quickly change ammunition magazines is one indicator that a gun is the type that should be banned under California law. The way many semi-automatic rifles eject an empty magazine is by pressing a button.
According to current state regulations, if you can press the button with your finger, the gun is illegal. But if you need a tool to detach the magazine, the gun is totally fine. Certain bullets are the right size to press the button and quickly change out the ammunition, so they are called “bullet buttons.”
A bullet button only adds maybe one or two seconds to the act of changing a magazine, so it is really no safer than a banned semi-automatic rifle. But semi-automatic guns with bullet buttons are legal today.
“It’s scary,” Attorney General Kamala Harris told KPIX (Ch. 5). “We all agree that is not what the law intended.”
Yee tried to pass a law last year that would have expanded the definition of “assault weapon” to include semi-automatic guns requiring a tool, like a bullet, to depress the button and detach the ammunition cartridge. His law also initially banned “conversion kits” that make bullet buttons easy to press with a finger — thus making the guns illegal — but that part was later eliminated.
After intense lobbying that included a billboard on U.S. Highway 101 in San Carlos and “No Yee Can’t” decals, Yee’s bill never made it out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
I dare say the bill will find a much more receptive audience this year.
Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at 6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at email@example.com.