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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Waking Up to Some Harsh Realities

April 26, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — He sounded like some Charles Dickens character: A crusty old legislator--a combat Army sergeant in the Korean War--wakes up suddenly "smelling death again." In his grogginess, he relives horrific youthful experiences. His life is transformed.

He becomes a gun-control advocate.

Assemblyman Dick Floyd (D-Wilmington), 68, generally is considered a boor. Whenever he stands on the Assembly floor to speak, colleagues open one ear out of curiosity, but carry on with their private conversations. More often than not, he's bellowing some complaint or wisecrack.

Not last Thursday. Floyd stood somberly at his desk in the back row of the chamber and talked in a calm, low voice that nevertheless was loaded with emotion. He was one of the last lawmakers to speak during a long debate over the biggest gun-control bill to reach a house vote this year--a measure to follow L.A.'s lead and limit handgun purchases all over California to one a month.

It was the most dramatic moment of the young legislative session.

First, there was the backdrop of the Colorado high school massacre. Nobody argued that limiting handgun buys to one a month would prevent such mass slaughter. But there was a sense--at least among swing Democrats--of enough; it's long past time to begin controlling the proliferation of firearms.

Secondly, this was "Bring Your Daughter to Work Day." The Assembly floor was sprinkled with young children, a constant reminder of innocence and schoolyard carnage.

There would be no better time to pass a gun-control bill. But the outcome was very much in doubt. It took an unexpected vote from the old curmudgeon to pass the measure and send it on to the Senate--an example of timing being everything in politics.

*

Floyd stood at his mike--bald, bespectacled, jabbing a finger, this time carefully choosing his words.

"For over 20 years around here," he began, "I never spoke one time on any issue relating to guns. In fact, I was a nonparticipant. I never voted for one of these bills, I never voted against. . . . What the hell, it didn't mean anything."

But last night he had an epiphany, Floyd continued. He had watched an hourlong TV special on the school shootings and then dozed off.

"I woke up shortly," the South Bay lawmaker went on, "and I couldn't sleep. There was a horrible smell throughout my house. Almost 50 years [after combat]. . . . You can't imagine that smell, unless you smelled it and you lived with it and it saturates the ground and gets into everything. You know, you complain about my cigar smoke and how it gets in your clothes. Guarantee 'ya, this smell does too.

"I have seen with my own eyes a massacre," the former soldier noted. "Children, women, men. . . ."

Later, Floyd elaborated to reporters: "There's a smell about running blood. When you get shot, there's a smell about burning flesh. . . . These [pro-gun] people, I wish they could get a whiff."

Lying there in bed, Floyd decided, "I'm no longer going to be a nonparticipant," he told his colleagues. "I don't care how restrictive of your rights you think the bill is . . . I am willing not only to vote for everything, I'll co-author every gun bill that comes along."

*

Something else crucial happened in the Assembly besides Floyd's reawakening.

Earlier that day, the bill's author, Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles), met with Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) and informed him there were only 36 votes for the measure. It needed 41. Villaraigosa put out the word: This bill must pass.

During the debate, the speaker presided at the dais--a signal to all that he considered the bill personally important. One by one, he called wavering Democrats to the front and privately told them this: "We Democrats ran last year on gun control. We said it's part of our agenda. We have to keep our commitment."

Last session, the handgun limitation bill mustered only 32 votes. This time it got 41 because in November, Democrats increased their numbers. They now have 47 plus one Green and a Democratic governor.

Some cynics claim there's not much difference between the Democratic and Republican parties. They forget about gun control, among other issues. Not one Assembly Republican voted for this bill, which helps explain why their numbers have been falling in California.

Floyd is symbolic of a political system and a society not only waking up, too often, to the smell of death--but also to the odor of gun lobby blather.

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