Assemblyman Under the Gun on Key Vote

Times Staff Writer

Several weeks ago, Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Mike Roos, the author of controversial legislation to ban semiautomatic combat weapons, dragged Assemblyman Charles W. Quackenbush and five colleagues to an out-of-the way theater to view the latest Charles Bronson movie, “Kinjite.”

As the first sounds of gunfire echoed through the movie house and Bronson’s menacing image flickered across the screen, Roos jumped to his feet and shouted to the row of legislators, “This is why I brought you here tonight. This is what I wanted you to see.”

For Quackenbush, a Saratoga Republican and a pivotal vote on the eight-member Assembly Public Safety Committee which would consider Roos’ bill, it was the beginning of the pressure.

From the moment Quackenbush, 34, a tall, boyish-looking ex-Army captain, announced he was still undecided on the gun-control issue in general and Roos’ legislation in particular, he became the focus of an intense philosophical tug-of-war. Later, he would joke that he had been “caught in the cross-hairs” between gun control advocates and gun enthusiasts, Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives.


Roos, a Los Angeles Democrat, had tried for years without success to pass gun control measures. This year, however, the murder of five children on a Stockton school playground by a drifter brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle gave his proposal new momentum. Roos’ first major test was the Assembly Public Safety Committee, where the votes appeared to be lining up with four in favor and three against. The critical fifth vote belonged to the uncommitted Quackenbush.

“I am in a dilemma,” Quackenbush told a reporter Monday. “It’s a serious issue when you start talking about banning a certain product that has some reference in the Constitution--the right to bear arms. But when the entire law enforcement community of California is saying, ‘We need this restriction,’ how do you go back and face your police chiefs and your county sheriffs if you vote ‘no’?”

As Quackenbush wrestled with his dilemma during recent weeks, the opposing sides aimed their lobbying firepower in his direction.

By Tuesday’s vote, his office had logged over 3,000 phone calls and filed nearly 1,000 letters. Back in his district, there were public rallies and press conferences.


Gentle Pressure

In private, there was gentle pressure from political backers, such as Menlo Park developer Tom Ford, a board member of Californians Against Handgun Violence who had provided key financial support during Quackenbush’s first quest for office two years earlier.

Quackenbush, unaccustomed as most relatively new lawmakers are to being the center of attention, was caught off-guard by all the lobbying.

“You feel a lot of pressure, and you really put the pressure on yourself, because everyone’s looking at you,” he said. “And then you kind of hit a wall, and you break through it and you know what you’ve got to do. You just kind of tie yourself to the masthead and put wax in your ears and just let the waves hit you.”

The initial lobbying assault wave came from gun control advocates after his local newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, ran a story on the gun control issue and the critical role Quackenbush would play in the committee. The National Rifle Assn. then countered with letters urging its members to, “Call Assemblyman Quackenbush’s office in Sacramento. 916-445-. . . . If the lines are busy, please keep calling until you get through. It’s THAT important.”

The forces pushing gun control fought back with 60-second television commercials, featuring excerpts from a speech by former President Ronald Reagan, who favors a ban on the AK-47. The NRA retaliated with near full-page advertisements in the Mercury titled, “An Open Appeal for Reason and Remedy From the National Rifle Association.” It asked readers to “Call Assemblyman Chuck Quackenbush today. The committee vote is scheduled for Tuesday, Feb. 28. Call now!”

Handle Calls

As the day for the vote approached, Quackenbush added an extra secretary to help handle the calls. While the phones rang and the mail stacked up, even the facsimile machine began spitting out messages pressing him to vote first one way and then the other.


“How,” asked one exhausted staff member, “did they get our fax number?”

Meanwhile, in the Capitol, Quackenbush said his GOP colleagues were quietly urging him to help them establish a solid wall of Republican opposition to Roos’ bill. Philosophically, many Republican lawmakers were opposed to the gun restrictions, while others said it was time to get even with Roos for the years he voted against their anti-crime bills.

“His clamor about semiautomatic firearms bans to protect people is hypocritical, considering his dismal voting record in Public Safety,” said one memo circulated by a Republican staffer in the Assembly.

When the pressure seemed to be reaching a peak, Quackenbush was faced with a new challenge on the home front. For years, he and his wife, Chris, had been trying to adopt a second child. Now he was being notified that a baby was finally going to be available. Doctors planned to induce labor Tuesday, Feb. 28, the day of the committee vote. Quackenbush asked, only half seriously, if the birth could be postponed for a day. The answer was no.

Despite the orchestrated phone-in campaign from the NRA, Quackenbush said the sentiment in his district seemed to be moving 7-to-1 in favor of some kind of gun control. Although solidly Republican, the district encompassing the affluent and middle-class San Jose suburbs of Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Campbell, Los Altos and Saratoga is politically moderate. Education and the welfare of schoolchildren is a prime concern of the Silicon Valley executives who populate most of its communities.

At the same time, Quackenbush said he was mindful that the NRA has 5,400 members in his district and that the organization’s opposition to another Republican, former Assemblyman Paul Zeltner (R-Lakewood), had helped defeat Zeltner in the last election.

When Roos approached him again for his vote on the eve of the committee hearing, Quackenbush suggested a compromise. He said he would consider breaking with the Republicans if Roos would remove the blanket ban on all semiautomatic combat rifles and replace it with language that simply banned specific weapons. Roos would also, he said, have to remove provisions for an appointed commission that would have determined what guns are legitimate sports firearms. Roos asked for time to think about it.

On Tuesday, as Committee Chairman John Burton (D-San Francisco) called for a vote, Quackenbush formally offered the amendments. Roos agreed to accept them.


Then minutes before the final tally, Quackenbush noticed that one of the guns that would be banned, a 12-gauge Italian-made Benelli M121-M1, appeared to be a sport weapon. Would Roos consider removing it from the list, he asked?.

“To get your vote, Mr. Quackenbush, I would be glad to give up one Benelli,” Roos said.

The committee voted 5 to 3, with Quackenbush casting the deciding vote to approve the bill.

Minutes before the vote, a staffer had passed Quackenbush a note. His prospective adopted baby, a 9-pound, 7-ounce boy, had just been born.