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Assemblyman Comes Under Fire From Both Sides on Gun Control Issue

February 19, 1989|MARK GLADSTONE | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Assemblyman Willard H. Murray (D-Paramount), who is under fire at home for his opposition to additional gun controls, now finds himself at odds with the nation's premier lobbying group for gun owners.

The National Rifle Assn., which last year supported Murray's campaign, has asked Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner to investigate an endorsement letter that the NRA says was altered and mailed without its permission.

Says Signature Changed

Theodore A. Lattanzio, the NRA's director of state and local affairs, said he sent an endorsement to Murray on Oct. 28. But he said the version sent to voters on the weekend before the Nov. 8 election was redrafted and his signature changed.

Murray denied that the campaign acted improperly. He said the letter "was voluntarily given by the NRA with content that was OKd on letterhead and signature provided by them."

Murray asserted that the NRA was aware that the letter would be mailed to voters in the 54th Assembly District. "The reason for having a letter is not just to make me feel good," he cracked.

But he acknowledged that his campaign may have failed to obtain approval directly from Lattanzio, assuming they had been given the green light by an NRA official in Sacramento.

James Hickey, a deputy district attorney in the special investigations division, said he expects to finish his review of the NRA's request by mid-March. So far, he said, it seems "the only potential violation could be forgery."

Gun control, a factor in Murray's campaign, has continued to be an issue in his district. The city of Compton, where Murray has strong political support, recently adopted an ordinance barring the sale and possession of assault rifles. Officials in the heavily Democratic city have criticized Murray for opposing further gun controls.

About 30,000 of the purported NRA letters, mostly targeted at Republicans in Bellflower, Lakewood and Paramount, were sent on the weekend before the Nov. 8 election. The letter is believed to have provided a campaign boost for Murray, who was locked in a close and bitter contest against one-term Assemblyman Paul E. Zeltner (R-Lakewood).

The endorsement irritated Republican lawmakers, who are traditional allies of the NRA. Some privately expressed surprise that the gun owners failed to endorse an incumbent GOP lawmaker like Zeltner, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's captain.

'Unfortunate' Occurence

Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks) last week described Zeltner as "the most outspoken advocate of tougher anti-crime laws and it was unfortunate on that one issue (the NRA) decided to declare holy war."

Zeltner had an uneasy relationship with the NRA during his term. While he sided with the NRA on several gun issues, he also found himself at odds with the group when he sought a middle ground on other gun control proposals.

As the campaign entered the homestretch, the NRA, which had not taken a position in the race, endorsed Murray. The endorsement was prompted partly because Zeltner was quoted as saying that he would favor some kind of restriction on the sale of such semiautomatic assault weapons as the Uzi and the AK-47.

With the election a few days away, the NRA did not have time or money to send out a mailer to its members in the 54th District, according to NRA lobbyist David Marshall. Instead, he said, the NRA provided the Lattanzio letter to William L. Cavala, a high-ranking aide to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco).

Murray said last week that his campaign believed that Cavala had received permission from the NRA to send out the modified mailer. Cavala said he merely acted as an intermediary between the NRA and the Murray campaign. He said he never approved or saw the version of the letter mailed to voters.

Among the differences in the two letters is that the original was addressed to Murray, while the computerized mailer was addressed to individual voters. Murray said Lattanzio's signature was embellished--possibly with a felt tip pen--in the version sent to voters.

The language also was altered.

For instance, in the letter to Murray, Lattanzio said: "Your opponent . . . not only has voted against gun owners' interests but his recent statement in the Los Angeles Times calling for new restrictions on long guns such as rifle registration will have no impact on crime and is the wrong approach to the very serious problem of criminal and crime control."

A similar passage in the letter to voters said: "Paul Zeltner has voted against gun owner's interests and called for new restrictions on long guns--the wrong approach to the very serious problem of crime control."

Confirms Editing

A source close to Murray confirmed that the original letter was edited but said that the two versions were substantially similar.

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