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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Veto of Gun Bills Puts Lungren on Firing Line

October 01, 1998|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — When Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed two big gun control bills, he turned over a crate-load of ammunition to Democratic candidates, especially Gray Davis.

You can almost hear the political pop-pop-pop:

Elect me governor and I'll sign those two bills. I'll get assault weapons off the street and ban Saturday night specials.

Elect my opponent and we'll get more of the same.

Actually, that's not entirely clear. Republican nominee Dan Lungren does agree with Wilson's veto of the Saturday night special bill, he says. But listen to him closely and he also seems to agree with the bill's goal: to ban the sale of junk handguns that are unsafe to handle.

"If we could find a bill," says the attorney general, "that truly dealt with the safety of a weapon--[so] an unsafe weapon [was not] on the market--that's something I could support."

Of course, that's what Wilson also had said he could sign and what the vetoed bill's sponsors thought they had passed. But Wilson ultimately found their legislation flawed, raising the question of whether there is any junk gun ban a Republican governor ever would sign.

Similarly, Lungren says he would support a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, the principal feature of assault weapons. Something in the range of a 17-round limit, he suggests. "That is cleaner. . . . It goes to the question of overall firepower," he asserts. "You don't get into a big argument about what something looks like."

That's also what Wilson argued in his veto message. But if the governor truly had wanted to sign an assault weapons bill, it seems he easily could have negotiated a compromise.

Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda), the bill's author, says Wilson's negotiators were "at best disingenuous--and at worst not telling the truth." The governor's veto message Monday, he adds, "was just off-the-shelf NRA babble."

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Lt. Gov. Davis endorsed both gun control bills: Perata's to strengthen the loophole-riddled 1989 ban on assault weapons, and a measure by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) to outlaw junk handguns unless they pass a product safety test.

By contrast, Lungren took no position on either bill. A spokesman says the AG objected to the specific safety test for handguns and Polanco wouldn't negotiate. If that seems lame, read Lungren's explanation for ducking the assault weapons bill:

"It was premised on the argument that the current law is unconstitutional. I am defending the current law before the California Supreme Court. Our position is that it is constitutional. For me to take a position on [the Perata bill] undercuts my defense of the current law."

The problem with that argument is that it's based on a false assumption. It is the suit against the current law--not Perata's bill--that claims the law is unconstitutional. Perata's bill merely was written to complement and toughen the law if it is upheld--or replace it if not.

But because of Wilson's vetoes, the Republican gubernatorial nominee now has a much bigger problem than trying to explain why he dodged both gun bills. Already under attack in Davis' TV ads for allegedly "refusing" to enforce the present law, Lungren now will be pressured to take a stand on stronger gun control. Every poll shows that's what voters demand. But GOP politicians always are skittish because the gun lobby is a volatile core of their conservative base.

"Wilson made a real strong case for why we need a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature," contends Darry Sragow, who is coordinating the party's Assembly campaigns.

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"The bottom line is that the gun nuts are the tail that wags the Republican dog," declares Davis strategist Garry South. And he notes: "If Wilson had signed these bills, that would have taken the issue off the table."

But GOP consultant Richard Temple believes that anti-gun rhetoric may have lost some firepower. "The problem for Democrats," he says, "is that the issue peaked in '96 when crime [politically] was at a peak. As crime has dropped, the voters' fear of guns also has dropped."

If so, that's both the good and the bad news for Lungren. He's campaigning as a tough crime-fighter.

Wilson gave logical reasons for vetoing the bills. For example, he objected that gun owners would not be able to trade in their unsafe pistols to weapons dealers. And he argued that an assault weapon should not be defined by "cosmetics," such as a bayonet mount; also, that the magazine should hold fewer than the proposed 19 rounds.

But I've a hunch Wilson would have found some reason to veto the bills, regardless. He may want to run for president in 2000, and the gun lobby wags with a big tail.

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