As he recalls it, state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala stiffened his resolve to vote for legislation to outlaw assault weapons at a tense meeting with gun-owning constituents.
The scrappy Democrat from Chino, who insists that he is philosophically opposed to new controls on firearms, said the six National Rifle Assn. members identified themselves as solid Ayala supporters, but threatened during the 30-minute meeting to back his opponent next year unless he voted against the bill.
“I told them, ‘OK, that’s the American system,’ ” said Ayala, who fought in the Pacific as a Marine in World War II. “When they came up and threatened me like that, it made me angry. And when I get angry, they lose.”
Faced with one of the most divisive political decisions to come before the Legislature in years, Ayala was in a tight spot--forced to balance intense competing pressures from the gun lobby, police, friends, family members and neighborhood groups that have been terrorized by gang shootings.
In the end, Ayala was joined by 26 other senators in supporting the first significant gun control bill to clear the Senate since 1974. Four days later, the Assembly passed its narrower version of the bill. In each house, members had their own, often very personal reasons for the votes they cast.
Ayala and some of his colleagues illustrate how the conventional chemistry of gun control politics shows signs of unraveling. The votes to approve the bills cut across partisan lines and geographical boundaries. Some usually liberal Democrats voted no while some generally conservative Republicans voted yes.
Even some allies of the NRA voted for the legislation, including seven members of the Senate and 10 members of the Assembly who were given A and B grades by the NRA last year and in 1986 on the “report cards” it compiled on legislators’ voting records.
In Ayala’s case, the decision to support the assault weapon ban grew out of a mixture of emotional reactions and cold, hard, political reasoning.
In an interview, the 14-year Senate veteran maintained that he had supported the NRA viewpoint on gun controls “time after time after time. . . . They are stubborn, single-issue minded and I don’t need them.”
While Ayala may consider himself aligned with the NRA on issues, his voting record is mixed--supporting the gun organization on some bills over the years and casting opposition votes on other measures. When he ran for reelection in 1982 and 1986, the NRA gave him a grade of D.
Even before his meeting with the gun-owning constituents, Ayala, who represents a conservative district stretching from San Bernardino to Pomona, said he had leaned in favor of the gun ban and that an informal telephone poll showed that citizens in his district also favored a ban.
The time had come, he said, to bar semiautomatic combat weapons from the streets and neighborhoods of California. At the same time, he said it was necessary to leave untouched the firearms of hunters and other sport shooters.
Focus of Debate
The two bills that are the focus of the current debate by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles) are sponsored by law enforcement and strongly supported by Los Angeles-area neighborhood organizations who suffer from street gang violence.
Now, the competing versions must be reconciled, a process certain to escalate the pressure as the winners of Round 1 seek to protect their victory and the losers attempt to take it away.
While the Roos and Roberti bills have captured national attention, many other gun-related measures are pending--some of which would go even further to restrict ownership of firearms. More than two dozen are scheduled for an Assembly committee hearing on Tuesday.
In one of the fiercest grass-roots lobbying campaigns in years, the NRA and allied gun owner groups are pitted against law enforcement leaders, teachers, school board members, doctors and highly organized neighborhood associations in Los Angeles, where gang violence and the fear of guns runs highest. Much like the abortion issue, gun control in Sacramento is so politically charged that most legislators are normally inclined to duck for safety rather than cast a vote to restrict firearms.
Previous Attempts Crushed
Previous attempts in the Assembly to ban such semiautomatic assault guns as the Uzi, AR-15 and the AK-47 were crushed by gun owner organizations, principally the unflinching NRA, which demands that armed criminals be more severely punished and that guns be left alone.
Gov. George Deukmejian, a longtime opponent of gun controls who softened his stance last month, has said he will sign an assault gun ban that clearly distinguishes between semiautomatic military weapons and legitimate sporting arms.
The big difference this time, both sides agree, were the murders of five children and the wounding of 29 classmates and a teacher Jan. 17 in the playground of a Stockton school. They were cut down by a mentally disordered drifter armed with an AK-47, who then killed himself.
The Stockton tragedy instantly became the symbol of escalating violence in California, and poignant photos in newspapers of the five dead children dramatized the helplessness felt by many Californians in the face of these high-firepower military weapons.
The killings occurred against a backdrop of escalating street gangsterism and armed combat over drug turf in the state’s urban areas. Even before the Stockton shootings, law enforcement officials, asserting that they were being outgunned by criminals, began drafting legislation to ban semiautomatic assault weapons.
In previous legislative attempts to eliminate such weapons, law enforcement took a secondary role and supported the efforts of others. This time, a statewide coalition of police chiefs, sheriffs, prosecutors and state Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp seized the lead and helped push the Roberti bill through the Senate and the Roos plan through the Assembly.
The campaign drew financial support from Handgun Control Inc. and Californians Against Handgun Violence. The two closely aligned groups purposely kept a low profile but reported spending $175,000 in only a few weeks for an advertising blitz and grass-roots lobbying effort on behalf of the bills.
One legislator who was singled out for special lobbying attention by both sides was Sen. Cecil N. Green (D-Norwalk), who received an A from the NRA last year. He said he “agonized” over his vote as he was caught in the lobbying cross fire.
Green, who has said he opposes gun controls and who is not up for reelection until 1992, confided shortly before the Senate debate that he would vote no, but ended up voting yes. Green said later he was genuinely persuaded by the arguments in favor.
One colleague of Green said the Norwalk legislator also had received a telephone call from Sheriff Sherman Block of Los Angeles County, a longtime friend of Green who is a prominent supporter of the Roberti bill. “That was one of the heavier calls of the Western World,” the source said of the persuasion applied by Block. A Green aide refused to characterize the call.
Green, who said his constituency was split 50-50 over the gun bill, noted in an interview that Deukmejian now supports an assault weapons ban and that the Bush Administration has temporarily suspended the importation of such weapons.
“I’m in good company,” he said.
Sen. John Seymour of Anaheim, a pragmatic conservative who is regarded as a potential Republican contender for lieutenant governor next year, dealt the Senate a surprise when he announced his support for the bill.
In voting aye, Seymour said he had rejected the advice of his campaign advisers. (A recent Los Angeles Times poll found that Americans, by a ratio of 4 to 1, want semiautomatic assault weapons outlawed.)
Another surprise vote for the bill was cast by Assemblyman Rusty Areias of Los Banos, a conservative Democrat who was reared as a hunter in his heavily agricultural district, where hunting and marksmanship are an important part of the life style.
“My culture is much like the culture of those people who many of you cannot understand,” Areias told his colleagues, asserting that he often heard his constituents wrongly described as “gun nuts.”
“Don’t you believe it for a minute,” he admonished. “They are law-abiding citizens, 99.9% of them.”
Areias said he surveyed sportsmen in his district and each told him that the Roos bill would not apply to hunting or target firearms. Nevertheless, Areias still had questions about the bill and huddled with Roos shortly before the vote to resolve them.
“We started going over those questions,” Roos recalled. “And, he looks up at me and said, ‘I want to do the right thing. I got 12 letters at my home yesterday.’ ”
Roos said he told him there was nothing unusual about that and he himself had received scores of letters. “ ‘But yesterday was Sunday and there’s no mail delivery,’ ” Roos said Areias told him. Apparently a number of concerned constituents had taken the trouble to deliver their messages personally.
Another crucial vote for the bill was cast by Assemblyman Gerald R. Eaves (D-Rialto), whose district overlaps with Ayala’s Senate district and contains many NRA activists. A few hours before the Assembly vote, he told Ayala that he was uncertain how he would vote.
‘I Was Surprised’
Ayala said he did not try to influence Eaves, but informed him of his own experience with the gun owners in his office a few days earlier and said he told Eaves: “If I erred on my vote, it was on the side of school children and the constitutional right of people to live in a safe environment.”
“I was surprised when I read that he voted for it,” Ayala said of Eaves, who had rated an A in the NRA’s latest report card.
While the Roos bill drew most of its support from Democrats, four Democrats from a cluster of districts in southern and southeastern Los Angeles County voted against it.
Except for freshman Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr. (D-Paramount), their districts are generally on the periphery of areas riddled with gang and drug violence. Each said his mail ran heavily against the bill.
Basically, they argued that the proposal, while seemingly attractive to the public, would provide a “false sense of security” and do nothing to put a meaningful dent in crime.
“I’m just tired of voting for things and telling people we’re doing all this great stuff,” said Assemblyman Richard E. Floyd (D-Carson), who received an A on his NRA report card last year, up from a C two years earlier.
“Last year we passed 16 different gang things. So, I assumed there’s no more gangs because we handled it,” he said facetiously. “That’s bull.”
Another freshman, Assemblyman Bob Epple (D-Norwalk), a member of the NRA who shares constituents with Sen. Green, said he campaigned, in part, in opposition to gun controls and “I couldn’t flop over in a matter of three months.”
Murray, who was endorsed for election by the NRA over incumbent Republican Paul Zeltner of Lakewood, likewise voted no, saying his action reflected “my own personal conviction” and “I think that’s the feeling of my constituency.”
Local officials of Lakewood, Bellflower and gang-troubled Compton had petitioned him unsuccessfully to support the bill.
The fourth Democrat, Assemblyman Dave Elder of San Pedro, reasoned that a ban on assault rifles wouldn’t have “any major impact.” He noted that sawed-off shotguns are illegal but that police throughout the state report that “such weapons are favorites of violent gangs.”
One Democratic political analyst who closely monitored the Assembly debate said he believes the four Democrats “whipped themselves into a mutual frenzy. Everybody stuck together apparently fearing that the ones who broke away would be targeted by the NRA next election.”
Times staff writer Mark Gladstone contributed to this story.
BANNED AND EXEMPT FIREARMS Here is a list of semiautomatic firearms that would be banned by manufacturer and model under the assault gun bill (AB 357) by Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles):
All AK-47s (Avtomat Kalashnikov) manufactured by Norinco, Mitchell and Poly Technologies
Action Arms Israeli Military Industries Uzi and Galil
Beretta AR-70 (SC-70)
Colt AR-15 and CAR-15
Daewood K-1, K-2 (Also known as Max 1 and Max 2)
Fabrique Nationale FN/FAL, FN/LAR, and FNC
Heckler & Koch HK-91, H-93, HK-94 and PSG-1
MAC 10 and MAC 11
SKS with detachable magazine
SIG 57 AMT and its 500 series
Springfield Armory BM59 and SAR48
Sterling MK-6 and SAR
Valmet M62, M71S and M78
Action Arms Uzi
Encom MP-9 and MP-45
MAC 10 and MAC 11
Mitchell Arms Spectre Auto
Franchi SPAS-12 and LAW-12
Gilbert Equipment Co. Striker 12
The Senate version of the bill (SB 292) by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) contains a broad definition of what constitutes a semiautomatic assault weapon that would be banned.
Briefly, these would include any semiautomatic center fire rifle that accepts a detachable magazine with a capacity of 20 or more bullets; any semiautomatic shotgun with a barrel less than 19 inches and a folding stock or a magazine capacity of more than six rounds; and any semiautomatic pistol that is a modification of a prohibited rifle or can accept a magazine of 20 or more bullets.
The banned weapons also would share these characteristics: short length; use a folding stock; originally designed for the military; have greater rate of fire or firing capacity than “reasonably” necessary for sporting purposes.
The bill, furthermore, would specifically prohibit as assault weapons these semiautomatic pistols:
Action Arms Uzi
Auto Ordinance Thompson 1927 AI
Encom MP-9 and MP-45
Federal Engineering Corp. XP 900 and XP 450
Holmes Firearms MP 83
Goncz Co. High Tech
MAC 10 and MAC 11
Iver Johnson Enforcer
Mitchell Arms Spectre Auto
The bill also would specifically exempt some common sporting semiautomatic rifles and shotguns from the ban:
Browning models Automatic Rifle and High-Power Auto Rifle
Egyptian Makim and Rashid Commando carbine
Fabrique Nationale FN Model 49
Harrington and Richards 300 series
Heckler and Koch models 630, 940, SL6, and SL7
Marlin Camp Carbine 9 mm., and Model 45 carbine
Mossberg Model 1500
M1 Garand and M1 carbine
M1941 Johnson Simonov SKS Type 56 (with nondetachable 10-round fixed magazine)
Remington models 4, 6, 742, 7400, Model 742 BOL Rifle, Sportsman 74 Autoloader, Woodmaster carbine Model 742
Ruger .44-caliber Magnum carbine
Simonov Type 56
Springfield Armory MIA
Voere Model 2185
Winchester models 100, 1907 and 1910
Browning Auto-5, BPS, Sweet Sixteen Auto-5, B-80 gas operated, B-80 Upland Special, Model A-500
Beretta Model A302 mag action and multi-choke, Model A303, Model A303 Competition Trap, Model AL with clip less than 6 rounds
Charles Daly Gas Automatic
Franchi Standard Automatic, Model 48/AL Ultra Light, Prestige and Elite models
High Standard Supermatic
Ithaca models 51a, Mag 10, XL900, XL300
Mossberg Model 712 Autoloader, Model 1000
Remington 11-87 and 1100 series
Smith and Wesson Model 1000
Tradewinds H-170 Auto Shotgun
Universal Autoswing Shotgun
Weatherby Centurian Auto, Model 82 Automatic 1MC
Winchester Model 1400 and Ranger
COMPARING THE GUN BAN BILLS Here are major provisions of the two bills to ban assault guns by Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles):
The Senate bill (SB292) would make it a felony beginning Jan. 1 to import, manufacture, sell, possess, give or lend a wide array of broadly defined semiautomatic assault weapons. Owners of such arms legally acquired by Oct. 1 would have until 1991 to register them with the state Department of Justice.
The Assembly bill (AB357) contains the same provisions relating to sale and possession of assault guns effective Jan. 1 but limits the restrictions to about 50 specific semiautomatic rifles, shotguns and pistols. It would provide for the same registration system as the Senate measure.
The Senate bill would establish a commission appointed by the governor and the Legislature to recommend which existing or new semiautomatics that seem to fall within the definition of assault weapons should be exempted as sporting arms. It would require a new law each time to exempt those guns.
The Assembly bill contains no commission.
The two bills provide that use of an assault gun during the commission or attempted commission of a felony would add a five-year sentence to the penalty.
Both bills would exempt .22-caliber rimfire guns from the proposed ban. They also would make it a misdemeanor to advertise assault arms for sale. Persons who wanted to get rid of their assault weapons could make the permanently inoperable or sell them to a licensed gun dealer who then could dispose of them in another state.
The ban would not apply to law enforcement agencies or the armed forces.