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California and the West | Capitol Journal

Gun Bill Barrage Makes Davis an Uneasy Target

July 08, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON and SACRAMENTO

Plop. A huge handgun control bill just landed on Gov. Gray Davis' desk with an annoying thud. And it's about the last thing he wanted to see.

It's not that Davis has anything in particular against this bill. It's just that there are so many gun control measures coming at him.

How's a governor supposed to keep up his carefully crafted image as a moderate--a Clinton centrist--if he signs all these gun control bills, maybe eight or 10 of them?

Answer: He doesn't plan to sign them all.

This first firearms bill to pass the 1999 Legislature and go to the new governor would prohibit Californians from buying more than one handgun a month. It's similar to an L.A. city ordinance that took effect June 3. The idea is to substantially reduce illegal trafficking of handguns through "straw" purchases--somebody legally buying a half-dozen pistols at a store, then peddling them unlawfully on the street.

The Los Angeles Police Department estimates that a quarter of the guns used in L.A. crimes got into the criminals' hands through straw purchases. Statewide, the California Justice Department reports that 22% of the handguns sold legally last year were bought by people purchasing two or more at once.

"Law enforcement around the country says this bill is the single most effective way to keep guns out of the hands of kids," asserts the measure's author, Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles). "If the gun doesn't get out of the store in the first place, it's not going to wind up with some gang member around the block."

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But a one-handgun-per-month limit hasn't been on Davis' agenda. By contrast, he campaigned hard last year against assault weapons and can hardly wait to receive a bill by Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda) to tighten up California's ban on these big-clip semiautomatics.

The Perata bill has passed the Senate and is pending in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It seems assured of passage.

Davis also has promised to sign a bill by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that would require safety standards for junk handguns, the so-called Saturday night specials. This measure has passed the Senate and, on Wednesday, cleared the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

In addition, the governor no doubt will sign legislation requiring guns to be sold with approved child safety locks. Each house has passed an identical bill and at some point the measures presumably will be merged.

But there are another dozen bills pending--to regulate gun shows, increase the penalty for illegally carrying a concealed weapon, prohibit gun dealers from selling out of their homes. . . . And most will require a hard sell to get Davis' signature.

"Politically, it's a problem," concedes one gubernatorial advisor. "There's a whole wish list of everything that these anti-gun legislators want. Some of it makes the governor feel uncomfortable. If they expect that he's going to sit there and sign eight or nine gun control bills covering everything along the waterfront, that's too much to ask."

Davis might start looking like a liberal if he signs a volley of bills perceived by some voters to be anti-gun, he fears. He doesn't want to use up a lot of political ammo fighting gun control battles. He also has other wars to wage.

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It's not only anti-gun bills making Davis uncomfortable. It's also liberal health and labor proposals.

"We've got a Legislature sitting there with no self-discipline whatsoever," the advisor continues, echoing other Davis intimates. "Rome wasn't built in a day.

"We Democrats have to be smart about this stuff. We can't make this first year of a new administration and the first year of undivided government in 16 years look like a feeding frenzy. And that's what they're doing. To put a moderate Democratic governor on the hot seat by sending him all this stuff unfiltered--on straight party line votes--is foolhardy.

"They'd better slow down and get an understanding of what will fly--both with the governor and the voters. He's probably going to veto some of these bills and smack 'em over the head with them."

But Davis won't veto the Knox one-a-month bill, I suspect, although it does stretch his limit. The governor has until July 19 to decide on the measure, which narrowly passed the Senate last week. I figure he'll sign it and flinch while squeezing the pen.

Davis probably will package the Knox bill in a photo-op featuring Perata's assault weapons ban, which is expected to pass the Legislature late next week.

After all, even moderate voters favor stronger firearms laws, according to polls. One reason Davis got elected was that Californians believed he'd sign tough gun control bills, unlike his Republican opponent. This governor is fine with that, but would like to space out the bills to avoid shell shock.

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