A year ago, Gov. Pete Wilson said he probably would sign a ban on Saturday night specials if they were proved to be unsafe. Not too small. Not too cheap. But too dangerous to handle.
Wilson had just vetoed a bill that would have outlawed the so-called junk guns. He protested that they were not all junk. Some were well-made. But the bill also banned these quality handguns because they were considered too small--too easily concealable. "That's totally illogical," he told me.
I asked the governor whether he would sign legislation banning handguns shown to be unsafe. "You mean as a matter of consumer protection for gun users?" he responded. "Yes, I probably would, if they were demonstrably unsafe."
Well, it looks like Wilson now has the bill he requested. Gun control advocates read those comments and his veto message and then crafted a bill to meet his criteria. They hope.
This year's version focuses simply on safety. There's a drop test and a firing test, similar to standards developed by the National Institute of Justice. If a gun model can be dropped six times from 43 inches without firing, it passes. If not, it flunks and cannot be manufactured or sold in California. Also, it must be fired 600 times with no more than six malfunctions, such as jamming.
"Quality handguns will pass the tests. Poorly made handguns will not," says the bill's author, Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), who also sponsored last year's vetoed measure. "We require safety and reliability tests for everything from baby rattles to car seats. We should require [them] for handguns.
"This law would have a nationwide impact because 80% of the poorly made Saturday night specials sold in America are manufactured right in our own backyard of Southern California."
Wilson also indicated last year that he would sign legislation to strengthen California's ban on assault weapons. He once voted as a U.S. senator to outlaw them.
"I think assault weapons have no place in a modern civilized society," the governor told me. "The concern I have had is the ability of someone with a semiautomatic and a [large] magazine to do incredible carnage."
He added: "As old Barry Goldwater once said, 'If you can't hit a buck with the first four shots, you ought to let the bastard go.' "
But such talk was easier last year. There was no bill on Wilson's desk aimed at assault weapons. Now there is.
The bill writes a generic definition of assault guns that cannot be manufactured or sold in California. The intent is to plug holes in a 1989 law that listed banned weapons by specific model. That just led to copycatting. Gun makers simply altered a model slightly and called it another name. Also, a court recently questioned the law's constitutionality (on grounds having nothing to do with citizens' 2nd Amendment right to bear arms).
Under the bill, an assault rifle is defined as a semiautomatic that fires bullets larger than .22-caliber, uses a detachable magazine and has such military characteristics as "a conspicuously protruding pistol grip," a folding stock, a flash suppressor or a bayonet mount. There would be a ban on sales of magazines holding more than 19 rounds.
"This is an attempt to ratchet down the firepower on our streets," said the bill's author, Assemblyman Don Perata (D-Alameda), during a fiery floor debate.
"I apologize for this cliche," responded Assemblyman Bill Morrow (R-Oceanside), "but, by god, it's the truth: murders are committed by people, not guns."
"All right, I buy that," said Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park). "People kill people. So let's not give them a gun."
But most Republicans voted against the bill, as they also did the junk gun ban. Democrats sent both measures to the governor on very close votes.
Once they were passed, Wilson's spokesmen pronounced the bills dead on arrival. But the obits were premature. The governor called in his aides and fired off a volley of hot verbiage. He hadn't even read the bills, the governor told them. He still had an open mind.
I asked Wilson about the assault weapons ban. "I honestly don't know," he said. "To me, the important thing is really the capacity of the weapon. . . . We're not having great tragedies because people are being bayoneted."
As for the junk gun ban: "My experience last year with the same author has led me to be very cautious."
This time, I noted, he can't veto a bill and get back a better one. He's a lame duck and it's now or never. "I'll be able to say 'correct this' and the next governor may sign it," he replied. "You ought to veto a bad bill and sign a good one."
Will Wilson sign these bills? Got me. Should he? Of course--for the very reasons he gave last year.