The Assembly, the key battleground this year for efforts to tighten gun controls, on Monday passed with no votes to spare a heavily lobbied bill to outlaw most military assault weapons in California.
The action represented a substantial victory for top law enforcement officials throughout the state and a thumping setback for the pro-gun lobby, especially the National Rifle Assn.
The bill, by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), barely passed the Assembly on a 41-38 vote, the exact simple majority required in the 80-member chamber. The debate, at times rancorous, lasted more than two hours on the most politically and emotionally charged issue of the legislative session.
On a politically sensitive issue that tends to cut across both party and geographical lines, 39 Democrats and two Republicans voted for the Roos proposal. Thirty Republicans and eight Democrats voted against it. One GOP member was absent.
Change in Positions
Although similar bills have been routinely killed in previous years, largely at the behest of the gun lobby, the Assembly’s action marked the second time in less than a week that a bill outlawing semiautomatic military combat weapons has cleared a legislative house.
A Senate bill, which would outlaw even more assault weapons than the Assembly’s version, was overwhelmingly approved on a bipartisan vote Thursday. Supporters and opponents alike agreed that the murders of five schoolchildren in Stockton on Jan. 17 provided the impetus for passage of the measures.
The two bills must be reconciled by a Senate-Assembly conference committee and be acceptable to Gov. George Deukmejian in order to become law. If this occurs, as now seems likely, California probably would become the first state in the nation to enact such legislation. Deukmejian last week indicated he favored the Assembly bill.
“The important thing is both houses of the Legislature have spoken rather decisively that they believe we need to ban some firearms in this state,” an elated Roos said after the debate.
Essentially, the Roos bill lists more than 40 semiautomatic rifles, pistols and shotguns that would be banned in California as illegal “assault” weapons. They include such high-firepower weapons as Uzis and AK-47s like the one used by a crazed drifter in killing the Stockton children and wounding 29 classmates and a teacher.
By comparison, the Senate-passed bill, sponsored by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), contains a generalized definition of what constitutes an assault weapon, based, among other things, on length and the capacity to hold ammunition magazines of 20 or more rounds. It lists specific automatic pistols that would be prohibited, but also specifically exempts commonly used hunting and sporting arms.
Such military weapons as the Uzi, AR-15 and AK-47 are designed for warfare and can be easily purchased over the counter by anyone 18 years and older who has the cash or credit. Police argue that the guns have become favorites of drug lords, street gangs and other criminals.
Both bills allow Californians who legally purchase such guns before next Oct. 1 to register them with the state Department of Justice by 1991 and to shoot them at licensed target ranges and clubs.
Supporters of both the Roos and Roberti bills maintain that they want to exclude from the ban hunting and other sporting firearms. They insist that the only function of semiautomatic assault weapons is to kill people in war and that they have no “legitimate” civilian purpose.
Scuttling the two measures is a top priority of the NRA, which waged a pre-vote statewide blitz of radio commercials during the weekend and followed up with newspaper ads on Monday. The organization maintains that the Legislature should crack down harder on criminals, not guns.
The Assembly vote was widely regarded as a critical test of strength between the NRA and the law enforcement organizations that drafted the proposal, which has been aggressively supported at the grass-roots level by teachers upset by the Stockton shooting.
Shortly after the vote, NRA spokesman Steve Mays denounced the bill as a “political placebo” and said his organization will press its effort against the bills in both houses.
One rural Northern California Democrat who voted against the bill, Assemblyman Norman Waters of Plymouth, charged that law-abiding gun owners in his Sierra mountain district would be “unnecessarily penalized” by the measure.
“I really believe that we are overreacting here today,” said Waters, a seven-term legislator who barely won reelection last year and is expected to face another stiff challenge next year.
“We are not overreacting, we are acting rather late,” shot back Assemblywoman Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), whose South-Central district is notorious for its heavily armed drug dealers and gangs. ". . . Babies are dying. Grandmothers are being killed on their front porches.”
But Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Thousand Oaks), who spearheaded the opposition, asserted that the Democratic-dominated Legislature was actually to blame for crimes committed with guns because it repeatedly has rejected bills to get tougher on criminals.
“This Legislature has concerned itself with so-called compassionate laws that have allowed criminals to roam freely on our streets,” he said.
Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-South San Francisco), who was badly wounded in Guyana in 1978 when she was gunned down by followers of Peoples Temple leader Jim Jones as she sought to flee Jonestown, noted that only “a handful of us have actually endured gunshot wounds from a semiautomatic.” Her boss at the time, Rep. Leo Ryan (D-San Mateo), was killed in the attack.
“I hope to God that we don’t have to wait for the press to be reporting on this building being riddled with bullets before we take some action,” Speier told her colleagues.
One key favorable vote was cast by Assemblyman Rusty Areias (D-Los Banos), a former NRA member who represents a politically conservative agricultural district and who was given a .22-caliber rifle when he was 5 years old by his father.
But he said that in discussions with his constituents not one gun owner reported possessing a firearm that would be affected by the Roos bill.
Here is the roll call by which the Assembly approved the Roos bill:
Democrats for (39): Rusty Areias, Los Banos; Tom Bane, Tarzana; Tom Bates, Oakland; Bruce Bronzan, Fresno; John Burton, San Francisco; Charles M. Calderon, Whittier; Robert J. Campbell, Richmond; Pete Chacon, San Diego; Steve Clute, Riverside; Lloyd G. Connelly, Sacramento; Domincic L. Cortese, San Jose; Jim Costa, Fresno; Delaine Eastin, Union City; Gerald R. Eaves, Rialto; Sam Farr, Carmel; Terry B. Friedman, Los Angeles; Tom Hannigan, Fairfield; Elihu M. Harris, Oakland; Tom Hayden, Santa Monica; Teresa P. Hughes, Los Angeles; Phillip Isenberg, Sacramento; Patrick Johnston, Stockton; Richard Katz, Sylmar; Lucy Killea, San Diego; Johan Klehs, Castro Valley; Ted Lempert, San Mateo; Burt Margolin, Los Angeles; Gwen Moore, Los Angeles; Jack O’Connell, Carpinteria; Richard Polanco, Los Angeles; Mike Roos, Los Angeles; Lucille Roybal-Allard, Los Angeles; Byron Sher, Palo Alto; Jackie Speier, South San Francisco; Sally Tanner, Baldwin Park; Curtis Tucker Jr., Inglewood; John Vasconcellos, Santa Clara; Maxine Waters, Los Angeles; Willie Brown, San Francisco.
Democrats against (8): Gary A. Condit, Ceres; Dave Elder, San Pedro; Bob Epple, Norwalk; Richard E. Floyd, Carson; Dan Hauser, Arcata; Willard H. Murray Jr. Paramount; Steve Peace, La Mesa; Norm Waters, Plymouth.
Republicans for (2): William J. Filante, Greenbrae; Charles W. Quackenbush, Saratoga.
Republicans against (30): Doris Allen, Cypress; Charles Bader, Pomona; William P. Baker, Danville; Carol Bentley, El Cajon; Bill Bradley, San Marcos; Dennis Brown, Los Alamitos; Chris Chandler, Yuba City; Gil Ferguson, Newport Beach; Robert C. Frazee, Carlsbad; Nolan Frizzelle, Huntington Beach; Bev Hansen, Santa Rosa; Trice Harvey, Bakersfield; Frank Hill, Whittier; Ross Johnson, La Habra; Bill Jones, Fresno; David G. Kelley, Hemet; Marian LaFollette, Northridge; William H. Lancaster, Covina; Tim Leslie, Carmichael; John R. Lewis, Orange; Tom McClintock, Thousand Oaks; Sunny Mojonnier, Encinitas; Richard L. Mountjoy, Monrovia; Pat Nolan, Glendale; Curt Pringle, Garden Grove; Eric Seastrand, Salinas; Stan Statham, Oak Run; Paul A. Woodruff, Yucaipa; Cathie Wright, Simi Valley; Phillip Wyman, Tehachapi.
Not voting (1): Gerald N. Felando (R-San Pedro).