SACRAMENTO -- During a three-hour hearing Tuesday that was designed to provide baseline information for difficult debates on gun violence-related legislation later this year, California lawmakers immediately uncovered something upon which all could agree.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers pledged to increase funding to the Department of Justice to allow it to hire additional investigators to track down a backlog of 20,000 known Californians who own guns even though they are prohibited by law from doing so.
"If there is common agreement on anything, it's that we ought to get guns out of the hands of people who are prohibited," said Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
"I concur with you completely," said Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego.
"We do need adequate enforcement of existing laws," added Tom Pederson of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, a gun owners' group.
Those comments came during a special joint meeting of the Senate and Assembly Public Safety Committees that included: the showing of a brief documentary film about the 1989 mass shootings of students at a Stockton elementary school; a review of the history of gun-control legislation in California; and a demonstration of how semi-automatic rifles can be adjusted to skirt the state's assault weapons ban.
Lawmakers were told that California already has the toughest gun-control regulations in the nation and were advised to expect tough sledding if they intend to adopt further restrictions this year.
"I got a gun permit because my life was being threatened with regularity, in ways that were quite frightening," said former Democratic Sen. Don Perata of Oakland, who led the effort in the late '90s to toughen the assault weapons ban. "This is serious business for serious people. If you just want to get your name in the paper, then stay out of this."
Current lawmakers, who will deal with numerous gun-control measures that have been introduced in the wake of the mass killings of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., appeared undeterred.
"This will serve as a launching point for what I anticipate will be a very active session around the issue of gun violence," Steinberg said of the hearing.
Stephen Lindley, chief of the Bureau of Firearms in the Department of Justice, told lawmakers that California's ban on assault-style weapons is being circumvented through the use of devices that allow for the rapid change of ammunition magazines on legal semi-automatic rifles. "It's a major loophole," he said.
In addition, he said, large-capacity magazine "repair kits" are being sold at California gun shows inside a bag that displays a disclaimer saying, "Do not assemble this in California." He noted the price of those kits has skyrocketed from about $20 to $85 since the Dec. 14 massacre of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School kicked off a nationwide push for stricter gun regulation.
Lawmakers are expected later this year to consider bills that would close both those loopholes.
Republicans on the panel, noting that California's gun regulations already go beyond the federal measures proposed by President Barack Obama, said the state does not need to consider further regulations.
"California already has extremely strong gun laws. It will not solve the issue to take guns away from people who did not kill people at Newtown," said Assemblywoman Marie Waldron, R-Escondido.
Lindley said the state's ability to track gun purchasers is far superior to the national system that law enforcement officials have widely criticized as being ineffective.
"We are unique in the nation in our ability to identify people who are prohibited from owning firearms," he said. The system allows attorney general's investigators to identify gun owners who have subsequently been barred from legally owning guns through their own actions, such as committing a felony or engaging in domestic violence that results in a restraining order being issued against them.
The attorney general's Armed Prohibited Persons System has identified 19,784 individuals who illegally possess about 40,000 handguns and assault weapons. The list grows daily by 15 to 20.
In two enforcement sweeps last year, agents seized 2,033 firearms, 117,000 rounds of ammunition and 11,072 illegal high-capacity magazines.
Steinberg, who has introduced an urgency bill to provide additional funding to the department to enforce the APPS program, asked Lindley how much money it would take to eliminate the backlog.
He estimated it would require $8 million a year for three years. "I think we could arrest our way out of this problem in three years," he said.
Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara who attended most of Tuesday's hearing, made clear they do not intend to stop with simply stepping up the enforcement of existing laws.
"It is important to find common ground," Jackson said after the hearing. "But there are going to be differences in how we're going to respond to protect our families and our children."
Perata urged Democrats to use the advantage they gained in the November election to push for further regulation of guns and ammunition.
"You've got a supermajority," he told Democrats on the panel. "Take it out for a ride. See what you can do with it. You won't get the support of all the Democrats, but you won't need them." ___