By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed several gun control bills on Friday, a move that essentially rebuffs an effort by fellow Democrats to enact a sweeping expansion of firearms regulation in the most populous U.S. state.
Brown vetoed the strictest bill, which would have classified any rifle with a removable magazine as an assault weapon, calling it an "infringement on gun owners' rights." But he signed other less stringent gun bills into law.
"I don't believe that this bill's blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners' rights," Brown said in his veto message.
The action drew a sharp response from California's Democratic Senate leader, Darrell Steinberg, who drafted the bill banning rifles with removable magazines.
"Since the horrendous mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, last December, more than 1,100 Californians have been killed by continuing gun violence," Steinberg said. "With the veto ... we have missed the opportunity to curb that violence and save more lives."
Brown also vetoed a measure that would have banned people from owning a gun for 10 years if they had been convicted of substance abuse violations or ordered to undergo outpatient mental health treatment.
A bill to ban kits that proponents say allow owners to convert their guns into assault-style weapons with large-capacity magazines was signed by Brown, who said it closed a loophole in existing law.
California's actions come as lawmakers struggle to balance calls for more gun control regulation following mass shootings against fear among gun rights supporters that their constitutional right to bear arms may be violated.
Just last month, two Democratic state senators in Colorado were recalled over their support for gun control laws, and a third faces possible ouster, an outcome that would shift control of that state's Senate to Republicans.
In California, lawmakers sent 17 gun control measures to Brown's desk, in part because the U.S. Congress, mired in partisan bickering, failed to act after several high profile gun rampages last year, including the deadly Connecticut school shooting that killed 20 children and six adults in December.
Far from rubber-stamping the legislature's efforts, however, Brown vetoed seven of the ten bills. Progressive Democrats were conciliatory - and not too surprised, as Brown has dragged them along a centrist path since taking office 2011.
"They had to know he wasn't going to go for all of this," said political analyst David Mark, who edits the website Politix. "This is probably about the best that they could hope for under the circumstances."
Brown toed a centrist line on other hot-button issues as well, including immigration, Mark said, vetoing a proposal to allow non-citizens to serve on juries while supporting measures to allow undocumented immigrants to drive and practice law.
Even with Brown's vetoes, California already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the nation, including an assault weapons ban enacted after a mass shooting at a school in 1989.
Chuck Michel, an attorney who advises the National Rifle Association on gun rights issues, said that with the exception of a bill phasing out lead in ammunition used in hunting, Brown vetoed the measures that were of greatest concern to the NRA.
"I am pleased he's shown some respect for the rights of California gun owners and those who would choose to own a gun to defend their families," said Michel, of Long Beach. Even so, the NRA is concerned about measures that Brown did sign, including the one banning conversion kits.
"He vetoed the worst of the worst," Michel said, "But the rest are still bad."
In all, Brown signed 10 gun control bills and vetoed seven. Those he signed included a measure to ban gun ownership for five years for people who they tell a psychotherapist that they plan to shoot people. Another, by Republican Ted Gaines, would give mental health professionals 24 hours to report such threats.
Bills that were vetoed included a measure to limit the ability of private parties to sell guns in the state, and one to allow the city of Oakland to enact its own gun restrictions.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, Chris Reese, Kenneth Barry and Jackie Frank)