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The State | George Skelton / CAPITOL JOURNAL

Gun Control Still One of the Great Divides Between GOP and Democrats

September 16, 2004|George Skelton

Sacramento — Want to control guns? Elect Democrats.

Want to keep military-style assault weapons off the streets and out of schoolyards? Remove President Bush from the Oval Office. Replace U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

Think Americans in other states should be free to buy practically any firearm that intrigues them, with a jumbo clip so they can squeeze off 50 rounds without having to reload? Then reelect the Republican president and return Republicans to power in Congress.

But if you prefer California's toughest-in-the-nation state gun laws? Then you'd better keep Democrats in control of the Legislature.

Voters have just seen a vivid illustration of what it means to elect Democrats or Republicans, at least on the issue of firearms.

In 1994, under a Democratic president and a Democrat-controlled Congress, the federal government banned assault weapons and the manufacture of ammunition magazines holding more than 10 rounds. On Monday, with Republicans now in power, the president and Congress allowed the ban to expire.

"It makes me sick to my stomach," said the ban's chief sponsor, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). She contended the percentage of assault weapons used in crimes had been cut by two-thirds during the 10-year ban.

Democrats enact gun controls; Republicans cower from the gun lobbies.

Not entirely, of course. The jury's still out on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The centrist governor did tell me in early 2001 -- before he entered politics -- that "I believe in sensible gun controls. Definitely, I'm against assault weapons." And on Monday, he showed it.

Schwarzenegger signed a bill -- by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) -- banning sales of .50-caliber BMG super-rifles. These small cannons measure 5 feet, weigh about 30 pounds, sit on tripods and can take out concrete bunkers. They're used for target shooting, mostly out in the desert.

During legislative debate, there was heated argument over whether the guns are capable of bringing down low-flying passenger jets. Republicans were willing to risk it. Only two voted to ban the weapons: Assembly members Shirley Horton of Chula Vista and Abel Maldonado of Santa Maria. Both are in competitive legislative races and live along the coast, where gun control is more popular than in the rural inland valleys.

Not one Republican voted for two other gun bills now on the governor's desk. One seeks to protect children from unsafe storage of handguns. Another would require sellers of handgun ammunition to keep ID records of buyers and make the information available to police. Both bills are sponsored by Sen. Jack Scott (D-Altadena), a gun control crusader whose son was killed in a shooting accident.

"I'm encouraged by Schwarzenegger," Scott says. "He doesn't seem to follow the hard-right Republican line."

The ammunition bill is modeled after a stronger L.A. city ordinance that requires an ID record of every ammo purchase, whether for a handgun or long gun. The police check a store's records to nab felons and other misfits prohibited from possessing firearms. "It's been very successful," says Lt. Steve Nielsen of the LAPD's gun unit.

Californians strongly support gun control, especially in urban regions. A statewide poll in February by the Public Policy Institute of California found 62% agreeing with this statement: "The government does not do enough to regulate access to guns." Democrats particularly thought this, but Republicans were divided.

Democratic candidates running statewide have used gun control -- along with abortion rights and environmental protection -- as litmus tests to hammer Republican opponents.

But Republicans running in legislative primaries feel they must guard their right flank against opponents backed by gun lobbies. "It's especially a problem for moderate Republicans," says GOP consultant Ray McNally.

One Republican exception is former legislator Steve Kuykendall, who is seeking an Assembly seat in the San Pedro-Palos Verdes area. A Vietnam combat veteran who packed an assault rifle, Kuykendall says: "I know how vicious these weapons are. And I don't think they play any role in our urban communities." He has voted to ban them.

Former Republican Gov. George Deukmejian signed California's first assault weapons ban in 1989 after a drifter, firing an AK-47, shot up a Stockton schoolyard, killing five. But former Republican Gov. Pete Wilson vetoed an attempt to strengthen that ban and also rejected other gun control bills, apparently envisioning a future run in GOP presidential primaries.

It took a Democratic governor, Gray Davis, and a Democratic Legislature to enact the state's strong gun control laws, including a tough assault weapons ban. That will remain on the books, despite Washington's surrender to the gun lobby.

"We're an island of sanity," says Senate leader-elect Don Perata (D-Alameda), author of California's assault gun ban.

The problem, notes state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, is that people will buy assault weapons in neighbor states and bring them illegally into California undetected. "They're the weapon of choice for gangs," he says.

Feinstein intends to propose an even tougher federal ban next year. California-tough, she says. But this likely will be a futile exercise unless America changes presidents or the Congress.

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