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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Democrats Won the War but Lost an Issue

July 15, 1999|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Democratic strategists are in mourning while Republican consultants are hoisting champagne glasses. Why?

Because the Democrats' bill to toughen California's assault weapons ban--a bill Republicans have fought for years--has passed the Legislature and finally is about to be signed into law by Gov. Gray Davis. That's right: Democrats are lamenting victory; Republicans celebrating defeat.

The political issue of assault weapons is expiring, at least for state pols in California--assuming Republicans have the good sense to let it rest in peace.

Democrats have won the policy fight and consequently lost the political issue. That's the way these things are supposed to work. Actually, in one way it's win-win all around: Democrats produce for the public and Republicans stop getting hammered.

"I'll miss it," one Democratic strategist conceded Monday, with tongue only slightly in cheek. Standing at the back of the Assembly chamber as the bill was being passed, the party pro added: "We made a commitment to the voters to deliver and we are. But I'll shed a tear."

Afterward, it was like a wake as Democratic strategists talked fondly of the old issue.

"It's been a wonderful run," noted Richie Ross, who then broke into a recitation of a winning TV ad he produced last year for Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer: "A madman with an assault weapon can turn streets into battlefields and schoolyards into killing fields . . . "

Conversely, GOP consultant Richard Temple said: "The more gun bills Democrats pass, the better it is for keeping that issue off the table. Having it away from the attention of voters is good for Republicans."

Commented veteran GOP strategist Tony Quinn: "It's been a big political football for Democrats. And it's hurt Republicans a lot."

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Gov. Davis plans to sign the bill Monday in San Francisco, where six years ago a man armed with two assault guns--each had a 50-round magazine--killed eight people and wounded six in a law office. Davis promised during his election campaign to strengthen California's weak assault weapons ban. And now he's delivering with a bill by Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda) that, among other things, limits semiautomatics to 10 bullets.

At the same time, the governor intends to announce his signing of another major firearms bill, a measure by Assemblyman Wally Knox (D-Los Angeles) to prohibit Californians from buying more than one handgun a month.

Later this summer, the Democratic-controlled Legislature is a cinch to pass--and Davis will sign--a bill by Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) to require safety standards for junk handguns, the so-called Saturday night specials. Also, a bill requiring guns to be sold with approved child safety locks is certain to be enacted.

These four bills, on top of the firearms restrictions California already has, will give this state "by far the strongest gun laws in the country," says Luis Tolley, western director for Handgun Control.

"Forget Congress," says Sen. Perata, noting the opposition of GOP congressional leaders to gun control. "The lesson here is that in states with strong executive leadership and legislative support, rational legislation can be passed. You can start creating national building blocks."

Indeed, gun control has risen from the bottom up even in California, where local governments have led the way, especially on handgun restrictions.

Perata has been fighting assault weapons since 1986, when he was an Alameda County supervisor. "We had a police officer murdered with an assault weapon and a little girl gunned down in a park by an Uzi," he recalls. "The gun issue is like flash paper in [inner-city] communities like mine."

It also recently has been burning Republicans in the suburbs.

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Some GOP lawmakers have been feeling the heat and reacting.

For example: Sen. Richard Rainey (R-Walnut Creek), who faces a tough reelection race next year in gun-jumpy Contra Costa County, abstained when the assault weapons ban first came up for a Senate vote last month. Afterward, his advisors jumped all over him. When the bill returned for concurrence in minor Assembly amendments Monday, Rainey leaped at a chance for political redemption and voted yes.

But many GOP legislators--as party gurus wince--are echoing the NRA line that gunners simply will find new loopholes in the tougher law.

Then Democrats simply will fire back with another assault gun bill. Says Perata: "We'll go the distance with them and, at the end, we'll be standing."

Or, as Dirty Harry--Clint Eastwood--told the punk serial killer: "Go ahead, make my day." These are shootouts Democrats relish and always win.

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