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California and the West | CAPITOL JOURNAL

Prospect of Gun Measure on Ballot May Trigger Action

September 07, 2000|GEORGE SKELTON

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis killed all major gun control bills this year simply by threatening vetoes. Next year, however, he may have a changed attitude. And one legislator definitely will have a different game plan.

Sen. Don Perata (D-Alameda), author of the 1999 bill that strengthened California's ban on assault weapons, is preparing to sponsor a 2002 ballot initiative to require the licensing of handgun owners--if the Legislature and governor refuse again to enact such a bill.

The thought of a November gun prop that coincides with state elections--including Davis' reelection race--no doubt sends shivers down the governor's nervous spine.

Veteran politicians such as Davis remember well 1982, when anti-gun zealots sponsored a November ballot measure that would have banned future sales of new handguns and required registration of existing handguns. Voters rejected it overwhelmingly (63%). The political significance was that Republican George Deukmejian waged a strong get-out-the-vote effort among gun owners, and this was vital in his narrow gubernatorial election (by a 1.2% margin) over Democrat Tom Bradley.

The 2002 initiative would not be as draconian, but still could be politically volatile. Fervent gunners who wouldn't vote otherwise could turn out to oppose the initiative, the Democratic governor and any candidate advocating gun control.

But it's conceivable the initiative won't be necessary--that Davis could be persuaded to sign a licensing bill.

*

This year, Davis declared a moratorium on major new gun legislation. He was honoring the request of law enforcement, which pleaded for a respite. It was panting to keep up with all the landmark laws enacted by Democrats last year, including bans on assault weapons and junk handguns, limiting handgun purchases to one a month, requiring child-safety locks, regulating gun shows. . . .

"Don't just pass 50 laws. Pass four or five and make sure they work before you pass any new ones," Davis told me recently. But he added, "There may be other measures we can take in 2001."

I asked him about registration of firearms and licensing of their owners, the latest goal of gun control advocates. He was reluctant to commit himself. But the governor did hint he leaned against registration and toward licensing.

"Californians are very protective of their privacy," Davis said. "They don't want Big Brother knowing everything they do."

In other words--although Davis wouldn't say so--people don't want the government making lists of their private possessions, whether it's exotic videos or steak knives or firearms.

But background checks and skill tests are different, he added: "You have to take a driver's test to drive a car. You have to pass a written exam. You have to demonstrate some competence. That's a concept people are comfortable with."

That was the concept behind this year's handgun licensing bill authored by Assemblyman Jack Scott (D-Altadena), assisted by Perata in the Senate. A license would have been needed by anybody buying a handgun. Cost: $25. Good for five years. Requirements: a background check and written safety exam--same as present law, but more thorough--plus a new firing range proficiency test.

It squeaked out of the Senate (22-15) despite some of the normal gun-worshiping looniness. "Lawn mowers are more dangerous than guns," protested Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside). "Heck, in some cases, if you misuse your microwave. . . ."

But without Davis' backing, the bill couldn't pass the Assembly. So Scott dropped it the day before the Legislature adjourned.

"I'm in this for the long haul," says Scott, whose adult son died from a shotgun blast fired accidentally by a party host. "This bill's going to be signed into law one day."

*

If Scott and Perata had their way, California would require registration of handguns to help police trace crime weapons. And owners of any firearm--revolver or rifle--would be licensed.

Myself, I'd also require a license to buy ammunition or any ammo part. No bullets, no bloodshed.

But handgun licensing seems politically feasible. And if Perata can't get the politicians to enact a bill, he plans to ask voters. There are a lot of gun control activists with big money and time, he theorizes. Remember the Million Mom March?

Already, the senator has conducted focus groups in two pro-gun regions--Fresno and Riverside--and says "it's off the charts." He has a Web site and is raising money. He'll invite law enforcement to help write the measure.

Keep it simple and logical--about safety and stopping bad guys from getting guns. Who knows, it might even attract anti-gun moms who wouldn't otherwise vote.

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