Governor Vetoes Bill to Ban Sale of Cheap Guns


Gov. Pete Wilson on Friday vetoed what would have been landmark legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of cheap handguns, suggesting that the measure would deny poor people a chance to purchase the guns for self-defense.

Wilson’s veto message, issued at 5 p.m. Friday, offered lawmakers who pushed the bill no suggestions for how they could recast it into a measure he might sign next year.

“Not only does [the bill] fail to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, it will deprive law-abiding, legitimate gun users of the needed protection of handguns,” Wilson said.

The bill “ignores the fact that millions of law-abiding Californians--including a growing number of women--have felt the need to own concealable weapons not for sport, but to protect themselves, their families and their property.”


The Republican governor’s veto of the legislation, SB 500 by Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), ensures that Democrats will push similar legislation next year, and that gun control will be a key issue in next year’s campaigns for the Legislature and governor.

“The veto is completely out of step with a majority of Californians,” said Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), who worked on the measure. “We’re going to be back in January, no question about it. This is an issue that’s not going to go away.”

Gun control advocates had viewed Polanco’s bill as the most significant measure to win legislative approval since 1989, when lawmakers restricted several brands of semiautomatic assault weapons after the massacre of five children at an elementary school in Stockton.

The measure to ban the manufacture of cheap handguns, dubbed Saturday night specials, would have had national implications because a half-dozen firms in Southern California produce 80% of the nation’s supply of the targeted firearms.

Easily concealable handguns produced by the firms cost about $100, and much less when they are purchased used. Several experts say the guns are used disproportionately in crimes, particularly by youths, although Wilson disputed that charge.

The California Police Chiefs’ Assn. had made Polanco’s measure its highest legislative priority this year, and Handgun Control Inc. ran radio ads in key legislative districts in an effort to persuade swing legislators to support the bill.

“I have to believe that this decision will haunt Pete Wilson,” Polanco said in a statement. “How many more innocent Californians have to be murdered with these guns?”

Wilson’s veto came as the California Republican Party convenes for a weekend convention in Anaheim, and is sure to win him plaudits from one of the GOP’s most active and vocal constituencies--gun owners.


It also came at the end of a week in which Wilson signed legislation greatly increasing penalties for carrying and using guns during crimes, along with four minor bills backed by gun control advocates.

Wilson said in his veto message that the measure to increase penalties for carrying or using guns in crimes will do far more to stop the illegal use of guns than Polanco’s measure.

“Common sense dictates that the best way to prevent gun crimes is by first removing from society the criminals who use guns in the commission of a crime,” Wilson said.

The political volleys over the bill began weeks before Wilson’s veto.


Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, the likely GOP nominee for governor, opposed the bill, while U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a strong gun control advocate who is considering seeking the Democratic nomination, took the unusual step of sending Wilson a letter urging that he sign it into law.

Lobbyists for the National Rifle Assn. hailed Wilson’s action Friday. The NRA and lobbyists for gun manufacturers teamed up in an effort to kill the bill, contending that it was so sweeping that it would have banned many expensive handguns.

“I am pleased because I know they spent a lot of time hearing the arguments on both sides,” Steve Helsley, the NRA’s top Sacramento lobbyist, said Friday.

Helsley predicted that Wilson’s decision to veto the measure will help his standing “with all people who want the government process to work in the right way. You want your elected officials to make sound decisions.”


The NRA and other gun groups had been urging their members to call and fax Wilson’s office asking him to veto the measure.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League also had urged Wilson to veto the bill, arguing that many police officers use small handguns as backup weapons. The bill exempted police.

Polanco’s bill sought to ban cheap handguns by raising safety standards for the weapons. Under the measure, domestically produced handguns would have had to meet the same standards that imported handguns must meet.

The guns would have had to withstand a “drop test,” in which they were dropped to determine whether they would fire when hitting the ground. Other standards dealt with barrel length and dimensions of the frame.


The standards written into Polanco’s bill were the same as federal requirements imposed in 1968 on imported handguns after Sen. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles.

Lungren opposed the measure, contending that it would have cost the state Department of Justice roughly $500,000 to certify labs that would test the guns and determine which weapons were legal.

Some proponents cast it as a consumer protection measure, saying the bill’s main goal was to set safety standards. They contended that the weapons are notorious for going off unexpectedly, although there was no testimony offered on that point.

Additionally, weapons traced by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms showed that cheap handguns are commonly used by young criminals.


Dr. Garen Wintemute of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis concluded in a study in May that young adults who buy cheap handguns are more likely to engage in criminal activity than those who buy more expensive guns.

“One commentator has described them as starter-set guns,” Wintemute said. “Our results are consistent with that view.”