SACRAMENTO — Siding with law enforcement authorities, California lawmakers Tuesday advanced legislation that would make it illegal to openly carry a gun in public, even if it's unloaded.
The bill cleared its first committee after an emotional debate that pitted public safety concerns against Second Amendment rights cited by gun owners.
"I think it puts all of us at such great risk," said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, one of four Democrats who voted for the ban.
Two Republicans on the Assembly Public Safety Committee voted against the bill, which goes to the appropriations panel.
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California law allows gun owners to carry a rifle or handgun in a holster in public if it is unloaded.
The bill's sponsor, Assemblywoman Lori Saldana, D-San Diego, said unloaded guns pose a threat, in part because gun owners are allowed to carry ammunition and could load their weapon within seconds.
To emphasize her point, she wore a bulletproof vest while testifying before the committee.
Law enforcement can't tell whether a gun is unloaded when approaching a person, said Lt. Wayne Bilowit, legislative advocate for the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department.
"If you're carrying a gun and a magazine next to it, if you make a sudden movement, we don't know if the gun is loaded or unloaded," Bilowit said. "Sooner or later, someone is going to get hurt."
Florida, Illinois, Texas and the District of Columbia have a similar open-carry ban, according to the Legal Community Against Violence, a public interest law center based in San Francisco.
While California and 34 other states allow people to carry guns without a license, only California, North Dakota and Utah require that the weapon be unloaded.
Republicans on the Assembly committee complained the Democrat-controlled Legislature has adopted too many laws restricting legitimate gun ownership in the state.
"Basically, the ones that are using these laws, the law-abiding citizens, are the ones being hurt here, not the criminals," said Assemblyman Curt Hagman, R-Chino Hills.
In California, loaded weapons can be carried in public only by those who have a concealed-weapons permit, which would not change under the Saldana bill.
Those permits are hard to obtain, requiring people to demonstrate they need to be armed. For that reason, gun owners say their only option is to carry an unloaded weapon as a way to deter trouble.
"If this bill were to be passed, I would be less safe," said Walter Stanley of Livermore. "What we're talking about is a right to bear arms, not a privilege."
Stanley, who began carrying his handgun about four months ago, is a member of the growing open-carry movement, which encourages gun owners to wear their weapons as they go about their daily lives.
Gun advocates gathered Monday at rallies in Washington, D.C., and outside the state Capitol in Sacramento to demonstrate for their right to bear arms.
A number of retailers have banned gun owners from bringing weapons in their stores. For example, California Pizza Kitchen issued a statement expressing concern "that the open display of firearms would be particularly disturbing to children and their parents."
Others, such as Starbucks, have sparked controversy by allowing open-carry advocates to bring their weapons into its coffee houses in the states that allow it.