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O.C. Legislator, Gun Lobby Duel Over School Violence

TIMES STAFF WRITER

She makes no bones about it--this is a personal battle for Doris Allen.

It began with her granddaughter. The Republican assemblywoman from Cypress couldn’t believe the treatment that the bright, blond-haired girl was enduring at school. First, the 14-year-old got roughed up at a dance. Not long after, a few girls tried to set her hair on fire with a cigarette lighter.

For protection, the granddaughter fell in with the “skaters,” a clique of skateboard fanatics in her northern San Diego County neighborhood. The girl’s grades plummeted, her attitude soured. She turned around only after her desperate parents moved the family to Helena, Mont.

Aghast that such a thing could happen, and all too aware that her granddaughter’s plight was being replicated in countless other California schools, Allen decided to help the only way she could. She began pushing a slate of laws through the Legislature designed to quell violence on public school campuses throughout the state.

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With the Legislature ready to close shop at midnight Wednesday, Allen’s measures are in the final stretch. It appears all four of her top bills could win final approval and reach the desk of Gov. Pete Wilson, who is expected to sign them.

Along the way, Allen’s legislative campaign against school violence has locked her in a pitched--and highly personal--battle with Sacramento’s powerful gun lobby. The state’s leading voice against gun control, Gun Owners of California Inc., was founded by former state Sen. H.L. (Bill) Richardson, who is related to Allen through the marriage of their children--the parents of the granddaughter harassed at school.

But the assemblywoman’s crusade also has won her broad support from parents, principals and police officers. During the past year, Allen has held forums in Orange County on the topic of campus violence, and what she learned was startling.

In the county, for instance, 400 students have been expelled from schools in the past three years for carrying weapons. Many forum attendees told her that the problem of weapons on campus is no longer limited to gang members or disturbed youths: Many students are arming themselves because of fear of attack. One in 12 pupils nationwide has admitted staying home on occasion due to fears of assault.

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“We were having these same problems in the inner cities for years, but no one was doing anything about it,” Allen said. “Now it has spread to suburbia. It’s shocking to learn some of the problems that are occurring.”

Among the legislative solutions proposed by Allen are:

* A “zero tolerance” policy (AB 1045) that would require expulsion of students caught with drugs or weapons on campus. Expelled students would be sent to special “community schools” to continue their education under tight supervision. Allen calls the bill, which is on the governor’s desk, “the most important school safety bill of the year.”

* Legislation (AB 2752) inspired by several Huntington Beach High School students that directs schools to punish pupils for racist hate crimes.

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* A bill (AB 1308) that toughens vagrancy laws on campuses so administrators have a more effective tool to combat gang members from other schools.

* Establishment of a 1,000-foot “gun-free zone” (AB 645) around school grounds. Violators could face felony charges.

The bills would go a long way toward curbing some of the violence that has crept into school life, said John F. Dean, Orange County superintendent of schools.

“We’re supportive of virtually anything that will protect the safety of kids on campus or within the campus range,” Dean said. “Our job is education, but the kids have to know they’re in a safe zone.”

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While all of Allen’s bills have gone through a gantlet of hearings and house votes, the measure calling for a gun-free zone has lately been the toughest political fight.

It has also been a battle between grandparents who normally see eye to eye on gun issues.

Richardson and Gun Owners of California argue that Allen’s measure would effectively criminalize law-abiding citizens living within the zone who wish to have a gun for protection.

Allen, who calls herself a “100% Second Amendment” supporter, contends there are allowances in the measure for residents near schools to have a gun in the home. The bill, she says, is intended to curb drive-by shootings and other violence that often mars neighborhoods around schools.

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In an Aug. 18 letter to Allen, Richardson said a representative of Gun Owners of California had made it clear in a meeting with the assemblywoman six months earlier that the group opposed the 1,000-foot zone. He called it “arbitrary” and said his group wants “to encourage, not discourage responsible gun ownership.”

“Just drive by Sacramento or McClatchy High Schools (in Sacramento County),” Richardson wrote. “There is no way reasonable folks would live within 1000 feet without owning several guns!!”

The letter also had a personal postscript from one grandparent to another: “If this had been the law in Montana, our kids would have been potential felons.”

Allen responded the next day with a letter of her own chastising Gun Owners for not carefully reading the bill, suggesting that the group’s representative failed to note any opposition in the earlier meeting and calling the efforts of Richardson and his staff “professionally unacceptable.”

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She, too, added a postscript: “Regarding Montana, even though our kids are legal gun owners, they still would have been perfectly safe under the provisions of AB 645.”

Their differences erupted last week when Gun Owners of California attempted to sabotage Allen’s bill. The group asked state Sen. Don Rogers (R-Tehachapi) to pull the school safety bill from the Senate’s consent calendar, where it was pretty much guaranteed to win approval. But after a heated round of lobbying, Allen managed to save the bill, which is now on the governor’s desk.

Miffed by the episode, the assemblywoman had retribution to extract. To the dismay of the gun lobby, Allen cast the deciding vote to push a bill banning copycat assault weapons out of a key committee. Declaring that “intimidation and bullying does not make it with me,” Allen said she decided to look at the assault weapon bill “in a little different light.”

And the battle has not yet stopped. The gun lobby now is pushing for amendments to Allen’s school vagrancy law (AB 1308), a move the assemblywoman considers “hostile.” The lobby’s effort could doom the measure for procedural reasons because legislative leaders this year are frowning on the introduction of major amendments at the close of session.

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Even if that happens, Allen has vowed to not give up the fight. She plans to continue her mission to crack down on school violence.

“I’m not going to leave it alone,” she said. “These are problems that all our kids face.”


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