Gov. George Deukmejian and his wife, Gloria, vote in Long Beach in 1982. (Los Angeles Times )
SACRAMENTO — George Deukmejian was not a flashy governor. Wasn't a spellbinder. But he was a bold leader on a perilous front: gun control.
In a state that prizes entertainers and celebrities, Deukmejian twice got elected governor anyway. He was the quiet-spoken, strong-willed type. "Iron Duke," they called him.
Gary Cooper would have been perfect for the part. Think "High Noon."
We're coming up on the 24th anniversary of Iron Duke's outdrawing the gun lobby to enact the nation's first assault weapons ban — an action hardly anyone could have predicted, given his political past.
Deukmejian owed his gubernatorial election in 1982, in large part, to gun owners.
Then the attorney general, he opposed an impractical gun control ballot measure that was considered too extreme by everyone except the far left. But it was supported by Deukmejian's Democratic opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. The initiative would have required the registration of all existing handguns and banned future sales of new handguns.
The Deukmejian campaign targeted voters in the Central Valley and Inland Empire — aiming its message particularly at gun owners — telling them where the two candidates stood on the proposed handgun ban.
"Not only did we drive the vote of gun owners," recalls campaign strategist Ken Khachigian, "we pushed Bradley off to the left. We had been having trouble getting people to see him as anything but a centrist, good-guy mayor."
The gun measure wound up losing by a whopping 25.6 percentage points. Deukmejian eked out a 1.2-point victory.
Fast forward to Deukmejian's second term on Jan. 17, 1989.
A young, racist drifter clad in combat gear and armed with an AK-47 assault rifle shot up a schoolyard in Stockton, killing five Southeast Asian immigrant children. Patrick Purdy fired more than 100 rounds, wounding 30 other kids — mostly minorities — and one teacher before killing himself.
Deukmejian was in Washington, D.C., for George Bush 1's presidential inauguration. He didn't waste time. You didn't hear any nonsense about "waiting for all the facts." Five children were dead. Those were facts.
He embraced state legislation — previously introduced by Senate leader David A. Roberti and Assemblyman Mike Roos, both Los Angeles Democrats — to enact the assault weapons ban.
I called Deukmejian last week at his modest Long Beach home, which he and his wife, Gloria, have owned for more than 50 years, to ask why he had reversed course on gun control so quickly.
"My thoughts simply were that regardless of what argument somebody might make about having the right to own and possess a gun, there was no common sense reason for someone to have an assault weapon," the former governor, now 84, told me.
In fact, Deukmejian said, he supports U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein's current effort to reinstate the federal assault weapons ban that existed for 10 years until Congress let it expire in 2004.
"There's no logical reason for anybody to own an assault weapon," he said.
Deukmejian, 24 years ago, was torn up emotionally by both the massacre of children and the hateful targeting of immigrant families.
"George has a clear sense of outrage," Khachigian says. "That's what drove him to be the sort of anti-crime legislator that he was" for 16 years before being elected attorney general. "He felt that society was breaking down. That was his reaction to the shooting."
At a memorial service for the victims in Stockton, Deukmejian observed that many of the mourners had fled their violent homelands to start new lives in the United States.
"The world today must seem like a very cruel place," he said, speaking directly to the immigrants and unconcerned about the TV cameras. "However, I want you to know that the overwhelming majority of the people of this state are good and decent and compassionate."
The governor noted that his own immigrant parents had fled Armenia to escape oppression and death at the hands of Ottoman Turks.
Back in Sacramento, Deukmejian fought off his old allies in the gun lobby and their Republican subservients in the Legislature.
Political pros might argue that this was fine for him. He wasn't going to run for office again and needn't fear the NRA. But it's also true that Deukmejian wasn't even grazed in the gun fight.
Based on the independent Field Poll, he was — still is — the most popular California governor since at least the1950s, with an approval rating that never fell below 53%.
"The closer we got to [passage], the more upset and engaged the opposition got," recalls Allan Zaremberg, then Deukmejian's legislative liaison and now president of the state Chamber of Commerce.
"My response to the [Republican] caucus was that the governor was committed to this and we're going to do it."
The bill passed the Senate easily and cleared the Assembly with no votes to spare.
Gun manufacturers immediately began to undermine the act by producing weapons similar to the banned models. A substantial strengthening was required in 1999 under Democratic Gov. Gray Davis.
Now more tightening is needed as gun makers continue to pry open loopholes.
What's most needed is Feinstein's legislation that would ban assault weapons nationally and match California's prohibition against bullet magazines holding more than 10 rounds. Then the loonies and gun-obsessed couldn't buy these mass-murder machines at Nevada gun shows and cart them into California.
We could use a new Iron Duke or two in Sacramento and Washington.