Los Angeles Daily News - Exclusive survey: California Democrats agree to ban assault weapons, Republicans mostly silent


By Josh Richman and Andrew Edwards, Staff Writers
Democrats representing California in Congress are promising to push for new gun control measures in the aftermath of the horrific slayings at a Connecticut elementary school last week, but the state's Republicans representatives were mostly silent amid the renewed debate over firearms legislation.
An exclusive survey of all 53 California House members and members-elect, by the Los Angeles News Group and Bay Area News Group, found all 32 of the 38 Democrats who responded to the survey support re-enacting some version of the federal assault weapons ban that existed from 1994 to 2004.
Many would consider even more stringent gun controls and said some popular firearms, such as the .223-caliber AR-15, are "weapons of war" that are unfit for civilian use.
"Reinstating and improving the Assault Weapons Ban should be one of the first issues Congress takes up next year," said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Glendale.
Gun control has moved to the forefront of political debate following Friday's massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
There, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 children and six adults before committing suicide.
Lanza is reported to have used a Bushmaster AR-15 during the rampage. Authorities said Saturday that Lanza's victims at the school had all been shot at close range with the rifle.
Previously, Lanza was said to have used Glock and Sig-Sauer handguns. He is also reported to have stolen the guns from his mother before shooting her to death and then beginning his killings at the school.
"Before the horrific shooting in Newtown, I was involved in conversations about putting in place common-sense regulations like the Assault Weapons Ban, closing the gun-show loophole and outlawing extended ammunition clips," said Schiff, who is a former federal prosecutor.
The near-total silence from California's GOP delegation, however, perhaps illustrates the deep partisan divide Congress will experience during the impending debate.
Only one of California's 15 GOP House members specifically answered the four questions posed by the newspapers: Rep. Tom McClintock, R-Granite Bay, who took a stand against increased gun control.
"Such laws tend to create a society in which criminals are as well-armed as ever and law-abiding citizens are rendered increasingly defenseless," McClintock said.
Citizens have a constitutional right to defend themselves with firearms, he said, and the Bushmaster rifle might look like a military assault weapon "but functions with the same firing mechanism as many handguns, sports and target rifles."
Other California Republicans were less willing to offer their opinions.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, and Rep. Gary Miller, R-Brea, declined to discuss gun-control issues until after a full investigation of the Connecticut rampage is done.
Rep.-elect Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville, said "restricting the rights of those who follow the law will only empower those who choose to break the law," but he wouldn't answer specific questions.
All other Republicans either were said to be unavailable for comment, or never responded to calls and emails.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, chairwoman of the California Democratic Congressional Delegation, said her members stand ready to act.
"If Republicans want to change, we'll work with them," said Lofgren, D-San Jose, noting other mass shootings "didn't seem to move the dial on the other side of the aisle. I hope that something this appalling might stir my colleagues to action."
There was more backlash from the Newtown shootings on Tuesday.
• President Obama said he would support reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban.
• Private equity firm Cerberus, in which the California State Teachers' Retirement System is an investor, said it will sell the parent company that makes the Bushmaster gun used in the attack.
• Dick's Sporting Goods, with more than 500 stores in 44 states, said it's suspending sales of modern sporting rifles.
The phrase "modern sporting rifles" often refers to AR-15 models that include the now-controversial Bushmaster .223 and similar semi-automatic firearms that resemble military weapons.
Commercially available AR-15s cannot fire multiple rounds with a single trigger pull. They can, however, fire the same .223 cartridges used by the military.
No California Democrat said Americans have a constitutional right to a weapon such as the AR-15 nor extended magazines.
"Weapons of war are not intended for hunting or protecting your family," Rep.-elect Gloria Negrete-McLeod said in an emailed statement. "This ban prevents extremely deadly guns used for war to be sold or distributed within the civilian population."
McLeod will represent a congressional district that includes parts of eastern Los Angeles County and the western Inland Empire.
She won her seat in November by defeating veteran Rep. Joe Baca, a fellow Democrat who holds liberal views on social services on immigration but also has a pro-gun ownership reputation.
McLeod, however, received more than $5.2 million in outside spending support from Independence USA, the super PAC of pro-gun control New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Baca had a 75 percent favorable rating from the National Rifle Association, compared to McLeod's 17 percent.
California's senior senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, has already pledged to introduce legislation that would stop the manufacture and sale of more than 100 specific firearms plus others that have certain features.
Feinstein's bill would also prohibit magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds and grandfather weapons that are now legal.
Congressional Republicans have opposed all efforts to reinstate a federal assault weapons ban since the 1994 law that Bill Clinton signed expired in 2004.
A 2004 National Institute of Justice study reported the previous Assault Weapons Ban had mixed results in reducing gun crimes.
The law prohibited 118 weapons and large-capacity magazines carrying more than 10 rounds. Assault weapons, however, were only used in 2 percent to 8 percent of gun crimes prior to the ban.
Assault rifles and other guns equipped with large magazines accounted for a higher share of murders of police officers and mass public shootings, incidents the 2004 study described as rare.
The report also found the availability of pre-ban large capacity magazines made it easy for criminals to obtain them.
"Should it be renewed, the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement," the 2004 report reads.
The newspapers' survey taken this week found Democrats gave mixed reviews to the idea of requiring background checks, including mental-health screening, for all members of a household where guns are kept.
Checking a purchasers' household may be too difficult to enforce, one said.
"It just raises questions, who lives there, who doesn't, who moves into the home," said Rep.-elect Alan Lowenthal of Long Beach.
Many Democrats, however, were willing to discuss the idea of requiring gun owners to take courses, get licenses and register all firearms similar to what states already require for cars.
Gun rights advocates said they were not completely ready to debate gun laws.
Chuck Michel, civil-rights attorney for the California Rifle and Pistol Association Foundation, said this isn't the right time.
"Politicians pushing legislative wish lists so soon after the slayings are shameless opportunists taking advantage of an emotionally charged situation to advance a pre-existing agenda," he said.
The National Rifle Association said in a statement issued Tuesday it's "shocked, saddened and heartbroken" by the Newtown slayings and is "prepared to offer meaningful contributions to help make sure this never happens again."
The NRA wields significant influence on Capitol Hill. The Sunlight Foundation - a nonprofit, nonpartisan government transparency watchdog - reports the NRA spent 73 times what the leading pro-gun control advocacy organization, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, spent on lobbying in the 112th Congress.
Through June, the NRA spent $4.4 million on lobbying expenses to the Brady Campaign's $60,000.
What's more, the NRA spent 3,199 times what the Brady Campaign spent on the 2012 election - $18.6 million to $5,816.
Public opinion, however, has tilted in favor of gun control, at least in the days since the Newtown shooting.
A CBS News poll in April found 39 percent of adults nationwide believed gun control laws should be made more strict, 13 percent said they should be made less strict and 41 percent said they should be kept as they are.
A new poll conducted Friday through Sunday found 57 percent now want stricter laws, 9 percent want less strict laws, and 30 percent say the laws should be kept as they are.
Staff Writers Josh Dulaney, Rick Orlov and The Associated Press contributed to this report.