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Why State Politicians Remain Timid About Gun Control

The State

October 10, 1999|Steve Scott | Steve Scott is the managing editor of California Journal, an independent monthly magazine that covers state government and politics

In the Legislature, it's a matter of arithmetic. Assembly Democrats representing "swing" districts, in which residents are more inclined to be suspicious of stricter gun laws, vote self-preservation. Pro-gun forces have a couple of powerful allies among urban Democrats. Assemblyman Roderick Wright (D-Los Angeles) has become a powerful inside player for gun-control opponents and was instrumental in declawing the gun-show legislation. Joe Baca (D-Rialto) has played a similar though less effective role on the Senate side.

Then there is the impact of the "new" gun lobby: the pro-gun grass roots. The standard cliche about gun-control foes--that they exert their influence through the National Rifle Assn.'s campaign purse--is hollow. In California's political races, NRA contributions have the same toxic qualities as those from the tobacco industry.

At the grass-roots level, it's a different story. California lawmakers generally don't hear much from constituents on specific bills. Ten letters on a piece of legislation is an avalanche. Lawmakers, furthermore, are especially skittish about resistance from back home in the era of term limits. Less-experienced lawmakers are not as adept at distinguishing between organic and organized opposition.

It's an environment tailor-made for grass-roots gun advocates. California NRA's and the California Rifle and Pistol Assn.'s Web sites are virtual pep rallies, filled with "action alerts" and interconnecting links. Their outreach and membership drives are fervent and relentless. Most important, the sites bring lawmakers face to face with voters who are passionate about the issue and not afraid to cast their votes accordingly. If you're a lawmaker looking to keep your job, who's going to hold more sway: some jargon-spouting swell from Handgun Control, Inc. or a real live voter from back home? It is this retail politicking as much as anything else that kept the political momentum initiated by the string of mass shootings from rolling into a tidal wave.

Whether Democrats in the Legislature are willing to further engage the gun debate and force Davis' hand on tougher laws will largely depend on the staying power of the gun issue going into the 2000 elections. If the economy stays strong and voters still feel unsafe, more stringent gun-control measures may pop into view. But if other issues push it aside, Davis' caution will look like political genius, and gun-control advocates in Sacramento may look back on 1999 as the year of the missed opportunity. *

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