No insult intended, but Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has much in common with a bobblehead doll: He’s always smiling, and he likes to nod “yes” to constituents. But Schwarzenegger took great offense to a particular bobblehead, which portrayed the governor decked out in business suit and assault rifle.
After Schwarzenegger sued, the Ohio manufacturer agreed last month to sell the doll without armaments. Clearly, when it comes to guns, this action-movie hero wants full image control — and a nonviolent image at that, despite the trademark violence within his films.
This gubernatorial posturing gave great hope to supporters of four pieces of legislation that would restrict gun makers and weapon enthusiasts, all in the name of public safety. And this week Schwarzenegger signed one of the bills, which bans the sale of .50 caliber, sniper-style rifles that are capable of piercing concrete, not to mention body armor. Another, more critical bill would require gun dealers to record the names and fingerprints of those who buy ammunition. Schwarzenegger must sign or veto this bill and two related ones by the end of the month.
Schwarzenegger’s position on gun control isn’t all just image polishing. Besides signing the ban on .50 calibers, Schwarzenegger favored renewing the federal ban on assault weapons that expired this week. He wasn’t especially vocal about it; he didn’t pound on the Republican president and Congressional leaders the way a Democratic governor would. But he didn’t duck the issue either.
Whether Schwarzenegger will do more to further gun control, however, is hardly a given. This summer, Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have encouraged public-school instruction on gun-violence prevention. His veto message supported the intent, but characterized the bill as unnecessary. Overall, Schwarzenegger has steered more toward the right wing, as, for example, when he sided with business interests on two key November ballot measures. One would limit the ability of environmentalists to take legal action against polluters. The other would overturn legislation requiring midsize and large employers to fund employee health insurance. On these issues, the governor bobbled decisively to the right. As for the gun-control measures, critics have cast those as anti-business, a catch phrase that often registers with the avowedly pro-business governor.
California already has some of the nation’s toughest gun laws. This state’s own ban on assault weapons remains in force. And it’s more stringent than the federal law that expired this week. In addition, the state also requires training for those who purchase handguns. And state law limits handgun purchases to one a month, while also requiring safety locks with each sale.
Two of the new bills and several of the old ones were the handiwork of state Senator Jack Scott (D-Pasadena). It was Scott who had sponsored the safety-lock law. Scott also got a bill through last year that will require new guns to indicate whether a bullet is in the chamber. Either law could have saved the life of his 27-year-old son Adam, who died nearly 11 years ago at a party in Los Angeles, when a person carelessly pointed a gun at Adam’s head and pulled the trigger, thinking it was unloaded.
Senator Scott has been an untiring crusader for gun control, or, from the standpoint of the National Rifle Association, an annoyingly effective nemesis against all they stand for. The organization has given Scott an “F-minus,” its lowest rating, and defines Scott as a “true enemy of gun owners’ rights.”
Scott offers no apology. “We still lose almost 30,000 Americans a year as a result of gunfire,” he said. “Guns are still one of the more deadly products that are out there. And if you have a dangerous product, it should be carefully regulated.” Scott hasn’t decided that guns need to be as strictly regulated as they are in many other countries, but noted that Americans are “13 times more likely to be murdered with a gun than people in western European countries.”
The most sweeping of the current measures is one of Scott’s, which would compel vendors to take fingerprints and identification every time a consumer purchases bullets for a handgun. Buying these bullets is already illegal for minors, felons, the mentally infirm, and those under domestic-violence restraining orders. But without the new legislation, there’s no teeth in these prohibitions. Dealers are only liable if they know their customer is barred from buying ammo. And nothing prevents purchasers from remaining anonymous.
The bills’ opponents include the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which argued, in part: “A registry would only list the people who are not a problem for society, and it would only impose another costly government record-keeping duty on California businesses.”
But L.A. city officials characterize the law as a bull’s-eye. The legislation is based on a city measure that is even stricter than Scott’s bill. It requires vendors to register all buyers of ammunition, not just those who buy bullets for handguns. “LAPD officers periodically pick up ammunition sales logs for review,” the city wrote in a letter to the Legislature. “Several cases have resulted in the service of search warrants and the recovery of several prohibited firearms as well. We have found the ordinance to be a very effective tool.” The city added: “The drawback . . . is that a person can go a few blocks away, out of Los Angeles, and buy ammunition without fear of detection.”
Scott’s other measure would close loopholes in penalties for leaving guns within reach of children. It would become a misdemeanor if a child obtained a handgun that was within easy reach of ammunition — if the gun owner knew that children could likely get access to the gun. And the bill would prohibit parents from giving their children permission to use handguns, unless parents or authorized adults are supervising — much like a 12-year-old can’t drive legally even if Dad says it’s okay.
The ban on selling .50 caliber guns is the work of Assemblyman Paul Koretz, the former West Hollywood councilman who led that city’s aggressive gun-control efforts.
The final bill, from Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would prevent the return of weapons seized by police until authorities can perform a background check.
Schwarzenegger’s actions stand in sharp contrast to those of President Bush, who spoke in favor of extending the federal assault-weapons ban, but quietly let it expire this week. Outside of symbolism, the actual value of the federal law is debatable; it was so full of loopholes that gun-makers and importers could readily work around its restrictions. It was largely Republican lawmakers who refused to close these enforcement gaps and who also let the law itself die.
“I’m terribly distressed over fact that the federal government has let the assault-weapons ban expire,” Senator Scott said. “Already the gun manufacturers are getting ready to sell these weapons, and they’re just for one purpose: to kill people.”
Scott remained hopeful that Schwarzenegger also would come through on the other bills, despite resistance from his own party and the gun lobby. “I’m sure that he’ll face a lot of pressure,” said Scott. “The gun lobby is always active. But he has not taken the NRA line. He’s open to the possibility of gun control.” The NRA won’t issue its first rating on Schwarzenegger till October because he’s so new to politics. In fact, not even Schwarzenegger’s spokesperson on gun control could offer specific Schwarzenegger positions on many existing and potential gun-control measures — other than to say that the governor would uphold the law.
So even though Schwarzenegger already has gone to great lengths to take a tiny, harmless toy gun out of his own hands, it remains to be seen how much more he’ll do regarding the real article.