The organization provided roughly half of the $5.8 million spent to defeat the measure (a near record for an initiative campaign at the time), with gun manufacturers accounting for the rest. A key television ad depicted an elderly woman cowering in bed as a faceless interloper turns her doorknob and her 911 call returns a busy signal.
This was a mild foretaste of the organization's modern paranoid approach, which involves portraying daily life as a gantlet to be run dodging bloodthirsty Latin American drug gangs, looters, kidnappers, rioters and terrorists, as paranoia poster child Wayne LaPierre of the NRA wrote in an essay last week.
"When people realized Proposition 15 would affect their capacity to protect themselves," relates Rick Manning, who helped manage the campaign as an NRA consultant, "it was overwhelmingly rejected."
It didn't hurt that the NRA staged an aggressive voter registration drive among gun owners and supporters. The measure lost by a 2-1 margin, an outcome that is widely thought to have helped bring about Los Angeles Mayor Thomas Bradley's narrow loss in his race for governor against George Deukmejian.
That was the low-water mark for gun regulation in the state. In 1989 and 1990, however, state regulations got much tighter. The inspiration was a precursor to the Newtown massacre — the murder of five children and wounding of 29 others in a Stockton schoolyard by a deranged gunman who reloaded his assault rifle twice in the course of firing 105 rounds.
The post-Stockton era yielded an assault weapons ban. The state also extended to hunting rifles and shotguns its waiting period in effect for handguns; the wait is currently 10 days. At the time, an NRA lobbyist scoffed that "people don't follow California in any knee-jerk reaction." But the state's assault weapon ban became the model for the federal ban sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in 1994. The federal measure expired in 2004, and a renewal may be on the table as Congress ponders new regulations in the wake of Newtown.
Today, California law requires that almost all transfers of firearms, including private deals and gun show sales, be made through a licensed dealer and completed after a waiting period. High-capacity magazines are illegal except for those owned before 2000. There's a long list of people prohibited to possess firearms, including felons and people judged to be a danger to themselves or others.
The new proposals include measures to close a loophole in the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and to require a background check and a permit to buy ammunition. The package reflects the cat-and-mouse game that unfolds any time an entrenched industry confronts a new regulatory paradigm.
"The gun industry has been very adept at finding loopholes to our existing laws," says Darrell Steinberg, the state Senate president pro tem, who will be spearheading the legislative effort in his chamber. He says the assumption that the bills will pass easily is misplaced: "It's not going to be easy or simple. There's going to be huge pushback certainly from the industry and a very vocal minority that doesn't believe in any law to reduce gun violence."
Indeed, gun-rights advocates sound as if they're already girding for a court fight. "It's just a matter of time before a California case gets out of the 9th Circuit," says Manning, referring to the liberal-leaning federal appellate court with jurisdiction over California. In the Supreme Court, which appeared to strengthen individual gun-possession rights with decisions in 2008 and 2010, "these laws will have some real problems."
It's true that the new proposals won't eradicate gun violence in California, any more than the post-1989 reforms eradicated school shootings in the state. The biggest loophole in California regulations can't be closed by the state — it's the porous regulations in nearby states such as Arizona that leach across the border.
But until and unless federal reforms close that gap, we're on our own.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at email@example.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.