California Vote Rejects Gun Lobby's Targeting

A California legislator who sponsored gun-control measure survives recall election

VOTER rejection of the first recall attempt of a California legislator in 80 years - widely considered a national referendum on assault weapons - signals a major win for gun control.

By refusing to vote state Sen. David Roberti (D) out of office before his term expires, voters in the San Fernando Valley's 20th Senate district said ``no'' on Tuesday to an orchestrated coalition of grass-roots organizations that took aim at Senator Roberti for being the author of the nation's first assault weapon ban.

``This is a national bellwether which serves as inspiration and support for elected officials across the country to stand up to the gun lobby,'' says Sandy Cooney, director of Western regional operations for Handgun Control Inc. ``Now more elected officials will have the courage to support their constituencies which want to end gun violence.''

When a disgruntled worker killed five school children and injured 30 more with an AK-47 rifle in 1989, Roberti shepherded the nation's first assault weapon ban through the state legislature.

The recall election was widely seen as retribution for that action despite his opponent's claims that Roberti record on tax and crime issues were also to blame.

Either way, opponents are claiming partial victory for sending signals to others who would legislate gun control, as well as in limiting Roberti's chances to run for state treasurer.

``No matter what the outcome, this recall has been a success,'' says Tanya Metaksa, executive director of the National Rifle Association's Institute for Legislative Action. The recall was being defeated by a margin of 59 to 41 percent.

``A grass-roots coalition has done damage to Roberti by making him spend valuable time and money which has severely hampered his ability to run for state treasurer,'' she said.

The vote took on added controversy because Roberti was being forced out of office in November because of California term-limit laws.

The election itself proved costly at a time when local government is strapped for cash. The cost to hold the vote was estimated at $800,000 to $1 million and Roberti reportedly spent $600,000 in the fight.

``To recall Roberti at this stage was the height of irresponsibility,'' says Larry Berg, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California, reflecting an editorial complaint voiced by several state newspapers. ``This has been one more example of the era of antipolitics.''

One major lesson of this recall episode depends on how politicians here and elsewhere interpret the results.

``It doesn't matter that the recall lost,'' notes Jeffe. ``It matters that the gun lobby made life miserable for Roberti. How that plays out on the momentum of some types of gun-control legislation remains to be seen.''

For Democratic Assemblyman Richard Katz, that momentum already killed one important bill. Narrowly defeated (34-40) in January, state assembly bill 1105 would have allowed district attorneys to charge people with either a misdemeanor or a felony for carrying a concealed gun without a permit.

``This bill had the support of statewide police and sheriff's organizations and the attorney general,''says Katz. ``But in talking to [legislature] members, it was clear many were concerned about the NRA getting in their face in an election year.''

With the Roberti recall election behind, Katz says the lesson for state legislators is now clear: ``This shows the gun lobby's bark is worse than its bite,'' he says. ``We can now be assured we can do the right thing and not worry about the consequences of recall.''

Roberti himself, speaking at a victory party Tuesday night said, ``[The gun lobby] vowed to drive me out of office, but we are going to drive them out of this valley and out of the state. This shows a lot of politicians that you can stand up against the worst characterizations and be around to fight another day.''

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