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Governor’s Reversal Seen Major Boost for Ban on Assault Guns

Times Staff Writer

Gov. George Deukmejian grimaced in horror on that sunny, chilly early afternoon of Jan. 17 as the first sickening details of the Stockton schoolyard massacre were relayed to him.

He first was confronted with news of the incident as he emerged after giving a speech, but the details reached him as he met privately in his office with top Democratic leaders of the Legislature.

“He didn’t say much,” recalled Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles). “But his facial expression really indicated horror at the incident.”

Two days later, in a surprise disclosure, Deukmejian, a longtime opponent of new gun controls who twice was endorsed for election as governor by the National Rifle Assn., announced his support for a ban on semiautomatic military assault weapons.

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Now, 2 1/2 months later, California appears on the verge of enacting the nation’s first prohibition against the combat rifles, and Deukmejian is widely regarded as the man whose reversal cleared the way.

“The resounding message that he helped send across the country is that if we can craft something (acceptable), he’ll sign it,” observed Assemblyman Mike Roos (D-Los Angeles), author of one bill to ban most assault guns.

But so far, the governor, always politically cautious, is not an active player in propelling the legislation into the statute books. Instead, he has opted for a sidelines role as an observer and commentator, sending signals to the Legislature on what kind of bill he will sign.

The Republican governor’s deliberate strategy of keeping his distance from direct involvement, may enable the legislation to fare better in the Democratic-dominated Legislature, say Democratic supporters of the bills.

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But it has been the messages the governor has sent on what kind of bill he will or will not sign that are likely to determine the final form of a California assault gun ban.

“It is in the legislators’ court right now,” said Michael R. Frost, the governor’s chief of staff. “We have given them some guidance, which we don’t do too often.”

Deukmejian long has been reluctant to propose initiatives of his own to the Legislature or inject himself in the legislation of others for fear of getting burned. He often has accused Democrats of “upping the ante” for something they want in exchange for something he wants.

Roberti, author of the gun-ban bill that passed the Senate last month, and Roos, who carried a competing bill that won Assembly approval, agree that unless Deukmejian is given the kind of bill he wants, it will be vetoed.

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Essentially, the governor has said he would sign a bill that makes a clear-cut distinction between military-style assault weapons meant for warfare and “legitimate” firearms used for hunting and other recreation. He also wants a bill that would extend to rifles and shotguns the 15-day waiting period that currently applies to handgun purchases.

Deukmejian has indicated he prefers the Roos bill, which specifies by manufacturer and model about 50 weapons that would be prohibited in California. The far broader Roberti bill describes what constitutes an assault weapon, a provision that would ban more guns than the Roos measure.

Gubernatorial Press Secretary Kevin Brett said that while the governor has been only indirectly involved in the legislative process thus far, he would “weigh in heavily” when the competing bills are submitted later this month to a Senate-Assembly conference committee.

One Democratic legislative tactician suggested another reason the Republican governor adopted a low-key strategy is that most GOP legislators disagree with his stand.

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Some Cross Party Lines

A few legislators in both parties crossed party lines on the gun bill. The Roos bill barely squeaked out of the Assembly, aided by two Republican votes. In the Senate, the rival Roberti measure received five GOP votes.

Roberti, who said he has not discussed his gun control proposal with the governor directly, said Deukmejian’s support for a ban assisted the bill’s passage by the Senate.

“It certainly helped,” Roberti said, “maybe more with Democrats than with Republicans because it sent the signal that the opposition--except for the hard-core gun lobby--was diminishing.”

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Gubernatorial Chief of Staff Frost noted that while the issue generally has not broken along strict partisan lines, he believes that “a lot of the Republicans think the bill really isn’t going to be very helpful and some think it would provide a mechanism to ban legitimate hunting weapons.”

In the Stockton tragedy, it was an AK-47 semiautomatic combat rifle that deranged drifter Patrick Purdy methodically fired at least 106 times, hitting children at recess. Five were slain and 29 children and a teacher were wounded in the attack before Purdy shot himself dead with a pistol.

The Stockton tragedy, played out against a backdrop of swiftly escalating violence and bloodshed in urban areas from combat weapons in the hands of drug traffickers and street gangs, dramatically altered the political climate surrounding gun control in the Capitol.

“He was visibly very upset about what occurred in Stockton,” said a longtime Deukmejian associate. “A lot of people don’t see this in him, but when he sees something that should be done, he reaches out to do it.”

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Deukmejian, the self-disciplined and usually predictable politician, had seemed to step out of character by so swiftly embracing a ban on assault weapons, especially against his own long record as a foe of gun controls.

“The children in Stockton are shot and two days later he comes out against assault guns, draw your own conclusions,” said the associate, who asked not to be identified. “He’s emotional but he doesn’t show it. Sometimes he is very reactive.”

Even before the Stockton incident, Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp and big city law enforcement officers, including Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates, were drafting state legislation to outlaw AK-47s, Uzis, AR-15 and other military-style assault weapons.

As a member of the law enforcement fraternity, when he was attorney general and as governor, Deukmejian has made crime fighting and public safety the cornerstones of his tenure. So, it was not out of character for him to support the assault gun ban, said Press Secretary Brett.

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Frost said the support of top-level law enforcement officials for a ban “influenced the governor a lot.”

While Deukmejian supports the assault weapon ban, he warns that it would not be a “panacea.”

“There are millions of guns that are already out in society . . . and so the criminal who wants to get that kind of a gun is probably still going to find a way to get it,” he said at a press conference last month.

Deukmejian used much the same reasoning when he argued against a 1982 handgun control initiative, which was rejected by a ratio of nearly 2 to 1.

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