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The Big Gunfight at the Sacramento Corral

March 12, 1989|Sherry Bebitch Jeffe | Sherry Bebitch Jeffe is senior associate of the Center for Politics and Policy at the Claremont Graduate School

In California, the NRA was given credit for the victory of Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount) over Paul Zeltner, a Republican who had voted against the NRA to ban assault weapons. But here, too, the NRA's increasingly heavy-handed tactics are losing credibility. Roberti has labeled the organization "the bully on the block."

At the same time, the gun-control lobby shows greater sophistication, building broad-based coalitions and grass-roots support to offset the NRA's vaunted electoral pressure. Pro-control forces have created mutually beneficial alliances with establishment politicians, including California Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 1990. They have hired a veteran Sacramento lobbyist to guide them through the legislative maze and have begun a coordinated media campaign targeted at districts of key legislators.

And, although the partisanship which has helped to cripple policy still exists, legislative leaders like Roberti and Roos have made a refreshing commitment to use their clout on this issue. Said Roberti, the powerful Senate president pro tem, "In my own house, where my leadership means something . . . I will exert every bit of leadership I have."

Deukmejian has indicated his willingness to sign brand-specific legislation banning the possession or sale of assault weapons. His stance should allow Republican legislators to feel comfortable enough to support some form of control.

Also significant is the shift in law-enforcement pressure. Until recently, the NRA and law enforcement fought together to advance the interests of sportsmen and endorse conservative "law and order" values. But in the face of escalating violent crime, law enforcement has split from the NRA's hard-line approach. Nashville Police Chief Joe Casey observed, "On almost every recent gun-related issue supported by the police, the NRA has taken the opposing position--against bans on cop-killer bullets, in favor of a weakening of the 1968 Gun Control Act, against outlawing non-detectable plastic guns and now against legislation requiring a seven-day waiting period for gun purchases."

Legislators are more willing to vote against the NRA when law enforcement stands with them. This is especially important for Democrats who represent conservative suburban and rural districts. They often find themselves caught between the demands of the legislative leadership and their own constituencies on the issue of gun control.

Law enforcement can reach Republicans, too. Assemblyman Charles W. Quackenbush (R-Saratoga), whose vote sent the Roos bill out of committee, explained, "If all of the police chiefs and D.A.s are on one side, there's no way you can be out there with the NRA on the other."

Media has also influenced the dynamic of the crowd. Hordes of television cameras recorded the Assembly meeting on gun control and every major Los Angeles television station sent a crew to cover committee hearings on the Roos and Roberti bills. Such media exposure focuses the attention of politicians and public alike.

Some form of assault weapons regulation appears headed for passage. What does all this mean? Not much, some would argue. Since meaningful regulation requires federal action, the politics of gun control in California is more symbolism than substance.

But, as it was on tax reform and insurance regulation, California will be watched as a trend-setting state. What happens here can give a movement momentum, media and money--or it can stop it cold.

In this case, California is the crowd. What we do here will help chart the course of life--and death--for Americans far beyond these violent times.

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