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How the NRA Got Shot Down in California

July 30, 1989|SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE | Jeffe, of Claremont Graduate School's Center for Politics and Policy, is a California political analyst

JUST FOUR months after a mentally disordered drifter named Patrick Purdy shot up a Stockton schoolyard with an AK-47 rifle, killing five children, California Gov. George Deukmejian signed the nation's first law banning military-style assault weapons. The National Rifle Assn. had been successful in killing earlier attempts to ban these guns. But this year, the powerful organization suffered its worst legislative thrashing in California history. How did that happen?

"Jan. 17 was a day that nobody counted on." That is how NRA spokeswoman Pam Pryor explained the group's stunning defeat, despite a trademark, grass-roots lobbying campaign that bombarded state legislators with mail and phone calls opposing the ban. The new law prohibits the sale, manufacture, import, distribution and transfer of about 60 types of assault weapons.

To credit the Stockton massacre with derailing the powerful gun lobby may be too simple an explanation. The slaughter focused public attention because it occurred in a "safe" setting in Anytown, U.S.A., rather than an inner-city battleground. But the NRA's failure in California reflects the same trends that have put it on the defensive nationally. Changing times (demonstrated by polls showing increasing concern about crime and violence), intense media coverage and hubris--that overweening self-confidence that springs from power--have all challenged the organization's political clout.

Said Lynn Montgomery, an aide to Los Angeles Democratic Assemblyman Mike Roos, who authored the Assembly version of the gun bill: "If you look at the McDonald's incident (in which James Oliver Huberty killed 21 people in a San Ysidro fast-food restaurant with an Uzi assault rifle and other guns in 1984) versus now, you have five years of intervening, escalating drug wars in every part of the country." By linking assault rifles with drug trafficking and urban violence, gun-control proponents shaped the debate around the public safety issue, allowing them to capitalize on anti-crime fervor and to co-opt conservative law-and-order positions.

And the NRA made a series of political miscalculations. By Opposing all gun curbs despite escalating violence in the streets, the NRA alienated its most important ally: law enforcement.

The NRA argues that it was the "badge and briefcase set," as Pryor labels law enforcement leadership, not the rank-and-file police, who supported the assault-weapons ban. But the gun-control lobby was perceived as having the law enforcement community squarely in its corner. And police support for the ban made it easier for legislators who represent conservative suburban and rural districts to vote against the NRA.

The NRA also lost considerable steam when three prominent Republicans--Deukmejian, President Bush and former President Reagan--voiced support for assault-weapons regulation. "One big unexpected thing which was terribly influential was Deukmejian's (change of) attitude about gun control (after the Stockton massacre) this year," said Bob Forsyth, an aide to Sen. David Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who authored the Senate gun bill. "That should have given the NRA some real shudders."

Another miscalculation, believes Luis Tolley, the California director of Handgun Control Inc., the major anti-gun lobby, was that the NRA was "caught a little off guard by the strength of the opposition and how well-organized (it) was right from the start."

As the NRA faced more-sophisticated, better-funded opponents, it saw its own grass-roots pressure tactics turned against it. Gun-control advocates hired a veteran Sacramento lobbyist to guide them through the legislative maze, while the NRA fired its top state lobbyist and relied heavily on national staffers less familiar with California. Internal NRA politics has been blamed for the gun lobby's disarray and for sloppy campaign tactics, such as misinforming some voters about who their state legislator was (In one case, mailings urged NRA members in the 54th Assembly District, in southeast Los Angeles County, to contact Paul Zeltner. But Zeltner had been defeated for re-election last year by Democrat Willard Murray--with the help of the NRA's endorsement!)

The 1990 elections are the next big test for the NRA. Will anti-gun momentum stall as time passes and the emotional thrust of Stockton fades?

Handgun Control's Tolley argues that "it's the people who voted against the NRA (on assault weapons) that demonstrate the NRA's losing political clout. Not just the fact that it lost, but that its traditional supporters voted against it. And if the NRA turns around and attacks some of those people, that really locks (them) in against the NRA."

But Richard DeChambeau of Gun Owners of California, a pro-gun political action committee, warns that when elections roll around, "I wouldn't want to be the guy to haul off and whack us once. . . .The NRA will come back and get candidates and some guys will lose their political fortunes."

Should that happen, the reports of the NRA's demise may prove to be greatly exaggerated.

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