California Democrats Successfully Exploit Gun Issue
By Rob Gunnison, Special to Stateline
SACRAMENTO - When Governor Gray Davis signed California's new assault firearm ban legislation, he also was putting an end to one of Democrats' most potent campaign issues.
Since January, 1989, when Patrick Purdy opened fire with an AK-47 and killed five children in a Stockton school yard, proponents of gun control have held the upper hand in California. And in many urban legislative districts, Democrats have used anti-gun control positions and vote to hammer their Republican opponents and hold control of the Senate and Assembly.
When Republicans controlled the Assembly in 1995-95, they lost their majority after backing a bill to repeal the state's concealed weapons law.
Bill Cavala, who has run election campaigns for Assembly Democrats for more than two decades, recalls the issue fondly. "We sent mailers that said Wyatt Earp outlawed carrying loaded guns in 1870 in Tombstone," he said.
For Cavala, the gun issue has been a staple of Democratic campaigns.
"Ask people what is wrong with the Legislature and they say special interests have too much power," he said. "And the National Rifle Association is a special interest in capital letters. It's right up there with tobacco companies as an enemy of the people."
And it has been Republicans who have been the biggest beneficiaries of the $173,450 the NRA gave candidates in the past two years, records show.
Joe Shumate, a Republican political consultant, agrees that the gun control issue has been a detriment to GOP candidates. "The gun issue is one that has hurt us as a party," Shumate said.
But with Davis' signature on the latest measure, he reduced the number of anti-gun control votes that Republicans will face.
The bill updates the ban on assault firearms signed by Republican Governor George Deukmejian in 1989, after the Stockton massacre. That measure attempted to ban specific weapons, including the AK-47 used by the gunman.
But that law also faced legal challenges, and opponents eventually stymied enforcement because the state was blocked by court order from adding new firearms to the banned list when new models hit the market.
The new law by Senator Don Perata, D-Alameda, instead defines the banned firearms generically. Off the market will be firearms that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, for instance.
Among the other characteristics also banned are pistol grips that protrude conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon, folding or telescopic stocks, and grenade and flare launchers.
The NRA has already put out literature illustrating how to modify rifles and pistols to meet the requirements of the new law.
"This is the fifth so-called assault weapons ban," said Steve Helsley of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, the state NRA affiliate. "Every time you have to do something five times, it is not a ban. This is a political show."
Davis signed the bill on the steps of San Francisco's city hall and was surrounded by California Highway Patrol officers and victims of the 101 California Street shooting in 1993 that left eight dead.
"Gun violence is the largest single killer of young people in this state, and will be for as long as guns are available on every street corner," Davis said. "That ends today."
But there are still plenty of battles to come.
Pending are measures that would outlaw sale and possession of "Saturday night specials," more strictly regulate gun shows and create a new firearms enforcement unit in the state Department of Justice.
But the issue likely will never go away entirely. No sooner had Davis signed the latest bill than a conservative radio show host announced a petition drive to overturn the measure on the March 7 ballot.
If it qualifies, Democrats will be delighted. They will have yet another opportunity to position themselves on an issue that polls and election results - have proven as a winner for many candidates.