The U.S. Senate's stunning rejection Wednesday of every proposed gun-control amendment -- including a bipartisan deal on expanded background checks -- might telegraph problems for California Democrats now pushing a gun agenda through the state Legislature.
Already boasting some of the nation's toughest gun laws, the largely liberal Golden State is mulling over a raft of even stricter rules. Among the most controversial: banning all semi-automatic rifles that take detachable magazines of any size; requiring background checks for ammunition purchases; imposing ammunition taxes; and keeping ownership records for all guns.
But just as the bipartisan Manchin-Toomey amendment to expand background checks to gun shows and Internet sales was sunk in Congress, in part by four red-state Democrats who probably feared for their jobs, so too might some state lawmakers from California's "purple" districts be unwilling to put their careers on the line.
"That's a very legitimate question," said former state Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, D-Oakland, author of several gun-control laws. Even if carried by the Senate's leader, he added, "that's never a guarantee on a controversial bill."
Current Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said Thursday he still anticipates "strong support for most if not all of the measures in the package."
"The message from Washington, D.C., is that states like California cannot wait: We have to do everything we can to protect the people of California and to hopefully over time affect the national debate in a positive way. ... The vast majority of the people are behind the kind of measures in our package -- and that's ultimately what matters."
Some political analysts aren't so sure.
"What he is saying is what Democrats were saying right up until they lost the vote in Congress," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California. "I don't think it's impossible that you're going to have Democrats thinking twice about it."
Opposing the Manchin-Toomey amendment Wednesday were U.S. Sens. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Max Baucus, D-Mont.; Mark Begich, D-Alaska; and Mark Pryor, D-Ark. Baucus, Begich and Pryor are up for re-election next year.
An ABC News/Washington Post poll last week found 86 percent of Americans support such legislation -- a percentage similar to other recent national polls -- but these senators know that they could face a severe backlash from pro-gun voters.
Baucus faced his toughest-ever re-election fight in 1996 as he was slammed for supporting the 1994 federal assault weapons ban. Begich hails from a state where lawmakers just passed a bill declaring guns and ammo exempt from federal laws. And in Pryor's state, the Democratic governor signed a law in February to allow concealed firearms in churches.
Already some California Democrats are conspicuously mum. For example, of eight lawmakers -- five assemblymen and three state senators -- who scored above zero on the National Rifle Association's 2012 score card, only one would talk to this newspaper last month about proposals to regulate and tax ammunition. And that one, state Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, said he wasn't too hot on the ideas.
The state Senate Public Safety Committee advanced a slew of gun-control bills Tuesday on party-line votes. But all five of that panel's Democrats -- chaired by Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley -- are from largely urban districts, not more suburban or rural areas where voting for stricter gun control might hurt them at the ballot box.
Hancock insisted Thursday that recent polls show support for stronger gun regulations across party lines. "What we saw at our hearing on Tuesday was people from all over the state, including the Central Valley, many who had never been to a hearing in the state Capitol before -- moms, ER doctors, researchers and law enforcement -- who came and talked about why they wanted these bills passed. They are not going to go away."
Still, Hancock acknowledged that national polling didn't affect the outcome Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
"We'll find out," she said.
Some California gun-rights activists took hope from Wednesday's votes.
"Blue Dog Democrats know that their constituents in rural and central California oppose the agenda of the urban Democrat politicians who are leading the charge against Second Amendment rights," said Chuck Michel, attorney for the California Rifle & Pistol Association. "Hopefully they will have the courage to resist political arm-twisting by the Democratic Party's political machine -- and will stand up for those they represent."
Jake McGuigan, lobbyist for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he won't count his chickens yet, given Steinberg's California-must-lead rhetoric. But "I would hope that reason would prevail in a state that has the most restrictive gun laws in the nation," he said.
At least one California gun-policy bill seems bound for the law books. The Assembly voted 65-10 Thursday to pass SB140 by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, which would let the state Justice Department use a $24 million surplus from its background-check system to beef up a program to find and seize guns from felons and the mentally ill. The state Senate earlier had passed the bill on a 31-0 vote. After a Senate concurrence vote, it will go to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.
The votes were lopsided despite gun lobbyists' opposition. They argued that law-abiding gun owners shouldn't subsidize the program and the state should either reduce the fee or refund the surplus.
Here are just some of the more controversial gun-control bills now pending before the state Legislature.
SB 374, by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento: Would ban sale, purchase, manufacture, importation or transfer of all semi-automatic rifles that can accept detachable magazines of any size. Also would require ownership records for all firearms.
SB 47, by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco: Would ban "bullet buttons" that let owners of registered assault weapons swap out ammunition magazines without disassembling the firearm; essentially, bullets could only be loaded one by one from the top of the gun.
SB 53, by Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles: Would require anyone wishing to buy ammunition in California to first obtain a purchase permit by passing a complete background check.
AB 187, by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland: Would impose a 10 percent tax on all ammunition sales to fund crime-prevention efforts in high-crime areas.
AB 760, by Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento: Would impose a nickel-per-bullet tax to fund early mental-health screening for children.