Breaking new ground in the state-level battle over firearms, the Democrat-dominated California state legislature has taken gun control into uncharted territory with a flurry of bills that target not just firearms and ammunition, but also recreational hunting.
Among the dozen gun control bills now sitting on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk are measures that would outlaw lead ammunition for hunting and common types of hunting rifles under the umbrella of an “assault-weapons” ban. Taken together, the measures go far beyond the efforts that have inspired a sharp backlash and political battles in Connecticut and Colorado.
To put the lead bill in context, about 95 percent of all ammunition sold in California contains lead. The alternative is metal bullets, some of which can pierce police armor and are banned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Critics say the bill would effectively end hunting as a sport in California.
“If California outlaws lead bullets, the federal government already outlaws everything else, so there’s nothing left for hunters to use,” said California Assemblyman Brian Jones, a Republican from Santee. “It basically outlaws hunting.”
Other measures on the governor’s desk in Sacramento include a ban on the sale or transfer of a class of “assault weapons” holding 10 or more rounds of ammunition, restrictions on gun shows, rules on firearm storage, and a prohibition on gun ownership for residents convicted of drunken driving.
Mr. Brown has yet to say whether he will sign any or all of the gun bills, but the effort already has sparked a backlash against the Democrat-sponsored bills by one of the party’s chief constituencies: labor unions. A half-dozen California labor leaders have formed a coalition urging the governor to veto the lead-ammunition ban, citing the loss of manufacturing and supply-chain jobs as well as recreational opportunities.
“You’re taking away one of the few things our working families enjoy and can afford,” said Mark Gagliardi of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 277, in Contra Costa County. “Sixty-five percent of all union households hunt, fish or enjoy the outdoors.”
The governor’s decision comes with firearms laws in the national spotlight in the wake of the unprecedented recall vote earlier this month in Colorado that cost two pro-gun control Democratic state legislators their seats and the Washington Navy Yard mass shooting last week.
How Mr. Brown will lean is anyone’s guess. A Democrat and a gun owner, he said at a public event last week that “California has the toughest gun laws in the country, and we’re proud of that achievement.”
In one sign of which way the governor will be leaning, Mr. Brown told the San Francisco Chronicle he would not be influenced by the rampage at the Washington Navy Yard that left 12 people and the shooter dead.
“And I think we want to look very carefully and not just react to events of the day,” Mr. Brown said. “When we pass laws, it’s not a decision of the moment, it’s a decision for the decades. And we want to look very carefully at what it is we’re setting in motion.”
If he signs the bill that bans all semi-automatic weapons with a detachable magazine, including hunting rifles, Mr. Brown is likely to set in motion a lawsuit, said Long Beach attorney Chuck Michel, who represents the National Rifle Association’s California affiliate.
“This bill is proof that the slippery-slope argument is valid,” Mr. Michel said. “We hope the governor sees how particularly ill-advised this bill is, but if he signs it, the NRA will have no choice but to challenge the law.”
Meanwhile, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence is lobbying the governor to sign the bills while praising legislators for passing “an unprecedented number of life-saving measures to keep our communities safe from gun violence.”
Credit for the passage of the lead-bullet ban goes not to the gun control groups but to environmental and animal-rights activists, led by the Humane Society and Audubon Society. The green groups argued that the lead from ammunition introduces a toxin into the environment that harms wildlife and humans.
“Lead is a toxin that is bad for human health and the environment, and lead ammunition exposes humans and other animals to this life-threatening poison,” Assemblyman Anthony Rendon from the Southern California city of South Gate, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “There is simply no reason to continue using lead ammunition in hunting, and today’s vote gives me great hope that we can eradicate this highly toxic element from our environment.”
Foes of lead ammunition note that the Fish and Wildlife Service already requires nonlead steel shot for hunting geese and ducks. In 2009, the National Park Service announced the goal of eliminating lead ammunition.
But hunting advocates argue that the elemental lead used in bullets is far less soluble and less toxic than the industrial lead used in manufacturing. They point to a study conducted on the California condor showing that the birds continue to register the same blood-lead levels even after a five-year ban on ammunition in their habitat.
“Those attempting to impede hunters’ rights through the prohibition of traditional ammunition consisting of lead components have used the California condor as a propaganda tool to advance their campaign,” said the pro-hunting website Hunt for Truth.
The lead ban would take effect in 2019, which undercuts the argument that ammunition presents a pressing health threat, said Tim Rosales, spokesman for the union group Californians for Conservation.
“If this is such an urgent threat to human and animal health, there’s no way they would push it back to 2019,” Mr. Rosales said. “The agenda of these animal-rights groups is to ban hunting and fishing. That’s the real goal.”
The rash of gun-control bills coasted through the state Legislature, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both houses. At the same time, some rural Democrats voted against the bills, illustrating the state’s rural-urban divide.
California may be bluer than Colorado, but gun rights advocates say signing the gun bills could trigger a similar uprising. Two Democratic state senators were recalled by Colorado voters Sept. 10 in reaction to their support for three gun-control bills.
“If [Gov. Brown] does sign them, I think that we’re going to see an outcry brewing,” Mr. Jones said. “These are hard-working families, a lot of whom happen to be union, and they’re hunters, they’re sportsmen, they’re honest, law-abiding gun owners who feel like their Second Amendment rights are being attacked. And they don’t like it.”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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