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State Democrats Take Aim Again at Saturday Night Specials

Legislature: Bills would either ban the cheap handguns or allow cities to prohibit their sale. But gun lobby and lawmakers from rural areas are firing back.


SACRAMENTO — Now that they are back in control of both legislative houses, Democratic lawmakers are trying again to enact tough laws designed to outlaw or restrict the circulation of cheap handguns, the so-called Saturday night specials widely blamed for so much of California's violent crime.

But house majorities may not be enough. As in years past, a split is already apparent between Democrats from big cities, most of whom support gun control, and others, mostly from more rural parts of the state, who oppose it. Urban areas--Los Angeles and its nearby cities in particular--have sought ways, with Sacramento's help, to rid the streets of the easily concealed weapons.

A Saturday night special is generally described as a gun made of inexpensive metal alloys, with a short barrel of about three inches that looks and functions like a semiautomatic pistol, as opposed to a revolver, and retails for as low as $50.

As in previous years, the legislation targeting the guns takes a couple of approaches--neither successful so far.

One set of bills would institute a statewide ban of the weapons. Other legislation would free local governments to enact their own prohibitions at least for the most severe crackdowns, an avenue now blocked by state law.

But there is no assurance that any of the legislation will find its way to Gov. Pete Wilson's desk--and the stopper is not solely the often cited power of the gun lobby.

Besides Republicans fundamentally opposed to preventing citizens' access to firearms, other doubtful votes include Democrats from parts of the state where guns are popular among the law-abiding--and voting--public.

Authors of key gun control bills admit as much, including Assembly Majority Leader Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), who says he is holding up an Assembly floor vote on a measure he wrote until he can count on the 41 votes needed for passage.

Villaraigosa's bill would repeal the state's authority to prohibit cities and counties from regulating gun licensing and permitting, putting "decision-making authority back where it belongs--in the hands of local authorities," he said.

Assemblyman Mike Machado, a Central Valley Democrat, is typical of the more skeptical legislators from rural areas of the state. He cannot support blanket measures relinquishing state authority to all cities and counties, Machado said. Other Democrats still wrestling with the issue have privately expressed similar concerns.

From both sides of the Assembly aisle have come objections to the specter of different gun laws applying in different cities, making compliance hard on citizens and enforcement difficult for police and sheriffs' departments.

In the state Senate, where past gun control measures have fared better, sentiment is stronger to grant local jurisdictions the authority to clamp down on Saturday night specials. A driving force is Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who has introduced two tough restriction bills.

The governor's office, however, could be another barrier.

A Wilson spokesman said the governor considers it "problematic" to turn over gun control to local authorities in a state as large and diverse as California, but that Wilson is watching closely to see what final forms the various bills will take.

Theoretically, according to several analysts, if bills such as Villaraigosa's are enacted, cities and counties could slap absolute bans on the mere possession of firearms.

Steve Helsley, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Assn., declared the Villaraigosa bill, which the NRA strongly opposes, "would allow a city to ban the private possession of privately owned firearms--in your home."

But there is little evidence to show that cities would go that far.

Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer--a leading advocate for stronger gun control--said tougher local ordinances could go a long way toward disarming criminals.

"You can imagine a whole spectrum of things . . . that [the city] could do that don't currently exist under state law," he said.

As an example, he said, Los Angeles could pass an ordinance allowing people to buy only one gun per month, putting a stop to those who buy guns by the gross and sell them to criminals. Such controls are proposed at the state level as well.

"That alone," Feuer said, "has contributed significantly to the flow of illegal weapons in our neighborhoods."

Feuer said he is not advocating controls "at the level that the NRA is attempting to portray."

However, he said, after incidents like the furious gun battle Feb. 28 in which two heavily armed robbers were killed and 17 police officers and civilians were wounded outside a North Hollywood bank, "there is a real clamoring for rules like zero tolerance for weapons violators."

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