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Normal Political Patterns Melt in Heat of Gun Control Conflict

March 27, 1989|CARL INGRAM | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — As he recalls it, state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala stiffened his resolve to vote for legislation to outlaw assault weapons at a tense meeting with gun-owning constituents.

The scrappy Democrat from Chino, who insists that he is philosophically opposed to new controls on firearms, said the six National Rifle Assn. members identified themselves as solid Ayala supporters, but threatened during the 30-minute meeting to back his opponent next year unless he voted against the bill.

"I told them, 'OK, that's the American system,' " said Ayala, who fought in the Pacific as a Marine in World War II. "When they came up and threatened me like that, it made me angry. And when I get angry, they lose."

Faced with one of the most divisive political decisions to come before the Legislature in years, Ayala was in a tight spot--forced to balance intense competing pressures from the gun lobby, police, friends, family members and neighborhood groups that have been terrorized by gang shootings.

In the end, Ayala was joined by 26 other senators in supporting the first significant gun control bill to clear the Senate since 1974. Four days later, the Assembly passed its narrower version of the bill. In each house, members had their own, often very personal reasons for the votes they cast.

Ayala and some of his colleagues illustrate how the conventional chemistry of gun control politics shows signs of unraveling. The votes to approve the bills cut across partisan lines and geographical boundaries. Some usually liberal Democrats voted no while some generally conservative Republicans voted yes.

Even some allies of the NRA voted for the legislation, including seven members of the Senate and 10 members of the Assembly who were given A and B grades by the NRA last year and in 1986 on the "report cards" it compiled on legislators' voting records.

In Ayala's case, the decision to support the assault weapon ban grew out of a mixture of emotional reactions and cold, hard, political reasoning.

In an interview, the 14-year Senate veteran maintained that he had supported the NRA viewpoint on gun controls "time after time after time. . . . They are stubborn, single-issue minded and I don't need them."

While Ayala may consider himself aligned with the NRA on issues, his voting record is mixed--supporting the gun organization on some bills over the years and casting opposition votes on other measures. When he ran for reelection in 1982 and 1986, the NRA gave him a grade of D.

Even before his meeting with the gun-owning constituents, Ayala, who represents a conservative district stretching from San Bernardino to Pomona, said he had leaned in favor of the gun ban and that an informal telephone poll showed that citizens in his district also favored a ban.

The time had come, he said, to bar semiautomatic combat weapons from the streets and neighborhoods of California. At the same time, he said it was necessary to leave untouched the firearms of hunters and other sport shooters.

Focus of Debate

The two bills that are the focus of the current debate by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) are sponsored by law enforcement and strongly supported by Los Angeles-area neighborhood organizations who suffer from street gang violence.

Now, the competing versions must be reconciled, a process certain to escalate the pressure as the winners of Round 1 seek to protect their victory and the losers attempt to take it away.

While the Roos and Roberti bills have captured national attention, many other gun-related measures are pending--some of which would go even further to restrict ownership of firearms. More than two dozen are scheduled for an Assembly committee hearing on Tuesday.

In one of the fiercest grass-roots lobbying campaigns in years, the NRA and allied gun owner groups are pitted against law enforcement leaders, teachers, school board members, doctors and highly organized neighborhood associations in Los Angeles, where gang violence and the fear of guns runs highest. Much like the abortion issue, gun control in Sacramento is so politically charged that most legislators are normally inclined to duck for safety rather than cast a vote to restrict firearms.

Previous Attempts Crushed

Previous attempts in the Assembly to ban such semiautomatic assault guns as the Uzi, AR-15 and the AK-47 were crushed by gun owner organizations, principally the unflinching NRA, which demands that armed criminals be more severely punished and that guns be left alone.

Gov. George Deukmejian, a longtime opponent of gun controls who softened his stance last month, has said he will sign an assault gun ban that clearly distinguishes between semiautomatic military weapons and legitimate sporting arms.

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