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Wilson’s Bad Aim on Guns

Not long ago, a grateful gun lobby was so attentive to California state lawmakers come campaign time that nearly every anti-gun bill died a swift, sure death. The mantra was always the same: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, so the answer is to lock up more people.

However, now that California has spent $4.5 billion since 1981 on prison construction, probably the biggest prison buildup in history, even the Legislature has come to understand that preventing gun violence is a whole lot less expensive and far more sensible than merely locking up the perpetrators and trying to console the victims of senseless mayhem. And most Americans, shocked by a seemingly endless string of atrocities involving firearms, now see that certain kinds of weapons have no place in civilized society outside the military. In light of all this, it’s astounding that Gov. Pete Wilson--a man who is said to harbor presidential ambitions--appears unable to grasp the obvious truth.

On Monday, the governor rejected two of the significant achievements of the Legislature this session--bills that represented solid progress in limiting murderous assault weapons and nasty little “Saturday night specials.” In doing so, Wilson stood on the thinnest, most cynical reasoning.

He vetoed a bill that would have required pistols and revolvers to pass minimal safety tests prior to sale. This bill took aim at the cheapest of cheap Saturday night specials, the ones so poorly made they can misfire or explode in their owners’ hands or even in a pocket under some conditions. Where’s the personal protection in possessing a weapon like this?

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Last year, vetoing a similar bill, Wilson contended--with a straight face--that safety testing would add to the cost of a handgun, thereby “depriving” low-income Californians of access to the weapon. This year, he fretted that a similar bill limiting cheap handguns could cut into the legitimate market for used guns. “How would an elderly widow safely and legally sell her deceased husband’s handguns?” he asks now. Now let us ask: How far off the point can you get?

Instead of approving reasonable restrictions, Wilson signed a bill giving sheriffs new authority to issue concealed-weapon permits to people who don’t even reside in that county. Look for more guns on the streets as a result.

Even worse was this week’s gubernatorial veto of a bill to eliminate copycat versions of assault guns that were outlawed by make and model under California’s landmark 1989 assault gun ban. Some gun makers have evaded the restriction by producing weapons that are virtual replicas of the outlawed guns, differing only in cosmetic aspects.

This vetoed legislation would have added to the existing law new, more generic definitions of what constitutes an illegal assault gun and limited the capacity of ammunition magazines for semiautomatic firearms. It was supported by police chiefs and educators as well as gun control advocates.

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This assault weapon measure had became even more urgent when an appeals court earlier this year struck down a key provision of the 1989 law that allowed the attorney general, with a judge’s consent, to add new semiautomatic weapons to the list of banned firearms. The court said this provision violated the state Constitution’s separation of powers.

With Wilson’s veto, California could have, in essence, no assault gun law at all if the state Supreme Court upholds the lower court ruling. Should that happen, or should someone shoot up another schoolyard or office building, the folly of squelching sensible laws will be clearer still, to society’s regret.


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