Opponents of Roberti-Roos gather at City Hall, 1989. Photo by Mike Sergieff, from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

Behind California's Ban on Assault Weapons

Posted Mondays, the Laws That Shaped L.A. spotlights regulations that have played a significant role in the development of contemporary Los Angeles. These laws - as nominated and explained each week by a locally-based expert - may be civil or criminal, and they may have been put into practice by city, county, state, federal or even international authority

This Week's Law That Shaped L.A.

Law: Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act
Year: 1989
Jurisdiction: California
Nominated by: David Roberi

Following the recent horrific mass shootings in Colorado, Los Angeles Times Capital Journal columnist George Skelton wrote a piece headlined, "The lesson of Aurora: California is right about gun control."

In the column -- which you can read here and which has received 575 comments and counting -- Skelton wrote in part:

Remember the old rule of thumb about the 1st Amendment: Your right to free speech does not allow you to cry fire in a crowded theater. Seems to me the same principle should apply to the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. No one should be allowed to haul a 100-round assault weapon into a movie theater. Or any other public place, for that matter.

Skelton also wrote:

Under California law, the Colorado killer could not have bought an assault weapon or a 100-round magazine. Assault guns are banned, and the magazine limit is 10 rounds. California also requires strong background checks and a 10-day waiting period for gun purchases.

The California law that forbids such purchases as mentioned above is the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989.

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The Act -- which you can read here -- and its subsequent amendments led to a prohibition on the sale of scores of specific guns. Here's an article about the Act and you can find vigorous pro- and con-commentary all across the web.

An excerpt from the Act reads:

The Legislature hereby finds and declares that the proliferation and use of assault weapons poses a threat to the health, safety, and security of all citizens of this state. The Legislature has restricted the assault weapons specified [later in the Act] based upon finding that each firearm has such a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.

David Roberti** is the 'Roberti' in Roberti-Roos. (Also: Meet Mike Roos.) Roberti represented parts of Los Angeles for twenty-seven years as a state legislator. From 1980-1994 he was President pro Tempore of the State Senate. Laws That Shaped LA previously featured Roberti in this column about "How Prop 84 Helped the Homeless and Added Affordable Housing."

Nearly eight months ago, as this column was just launching, Roberti spoke during a wide-ranging interview about a number of his legislative accomplishments. A portion of the conversation was about gun control.

"The legislation I am probably most well-known for," Roberti said that day, "is banning assault weapons." Roberti said he was always in favor of gun control but hadn't been a big advocate for it. "It was never my issue," he said.

That changed when the following events happened, Roberti said:

One day in the late `80s, David Horowitz, a newscaster in L.A., got held up at the point of a gun on his TV show. It was very frightening. Finally they subdued the guy and found it was a toy gun.
I put in legislation that you couldn't sell toy guns without a distinguishing mark. (The federal government has subsequently passed something similar.) So, it passed, with a little bit of opposition. We worked the opposition out for people who had antiques.
The L.A. Times ran an editorial saying, well thanks, but thanks for nothing, because if you really had vision you would have put the real thing in.
So, okay, if that's the way you feel -- it sort of stoked my fires. Assemblyman Roos and I put in a bill banning assault weapons, even though with my position as leader of the Senate it was going to be very, very tough.

Then something absolutely devastating took place. Again, Roberti:

I was in Governor [George] Deukmejian's office and we were discussing the budget. He was always very much against any kind of gun control. In fact he ran on that when he won.
He got a note in his office that five little schoolgirls at Cleveland [Elementary] School in Stockton had been shot and killed by some deranged man. And you could tell it visually shook [the Governor] up.
It probably didn't hurt that I was in his office at the time. So we pushed the bill and we won by one vote. Without that terrible incident, we wouldn't have won. So we passed the legislation in California. Subsequently the gun lobby tried to recall me five years later.

Roberti's co-sponsorship and ability to move Roberti-Roos into law did by various accounts lead to the end of his powerful political career. In 1994, Roberti was about to termed out of serving in the Legislature. He was running for the Democratic nomination to be State Treasurer.

But, as the story went, apparently sensing vulnerability and seeking to embarrass Roberti and teach a lesson to politicians nationwide that they should not back gun control, the National Rifle Association and others successfully called for a special election to recall Roberti.

Roberti won the recall vote by a wide margin. But he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars doing so, money that had been ticketed for use in his Treasurer campaign. Roberti lost that primary a few months later.

Today, nearly two decades later, Roberti works in private practice, as a lawyer. During that interview in the early days of 2012, he reminisced about legislation regarding everything from urban parks to the Museum of Tolerance to oil wells to freedom of information to rent control. And, Roberti-Roos.

When asked, for example, to explain how even though his legislation passed, it wasn't as if gun violence in California had ceased, Roberti said: "I hate to say it... but it would be worse."

When he spoke about meeting with people whose lives had been torn apart by shootings, he said, "I know tons of gun victims."

When he remembered the likes of rookie LAPD Officer Christy Lynne Hamilton, murdered in 1994 and John Scully, murdered in 1993 while saving his wife, Roberti said, in part, "The trouble is, on gun control, to keep it in the public mind, you've always got to have a more recent murder. It's just terrible. Now the NRA is popular again. And they only become unpopular when it's, 'Oh my God, this is terrible.'

And, well before the nightmare in Aurora, Roberti said the following. He was referring to working politically against the gun lobby:

"You can't do anything - because they are just so powerful. And you know you need another shooting like in Colorado, at the Columbine [High] School, to reinvigorate people. And then they forget. It's always been that way, then they forget. But the pro-gun types never forget. It's the only issue they care about."

Top photo: Opponents of Roberti-Roos gather at City Hall, 1989. Photo by Mike Sergieff, from the Herald-Examiner Collection. Photo courtesy the Los Angeles Public Library

**Jeremy Rosenberg has written about Roberti for LMU.

The Laws That Shaped L.A. column is going on an August writing and research break. Original columns return in September. In the meanwhile, please enjoy the column archives.

To suggest a "Law That Shaped L.A." or otherwise contact the columnist via: arrivalstory [at] gmail [dot] com, or leave a comment at the bottom of this page. Follow Rosenberg on Twitter @losjeremy

About the Author

Jeremy Rosenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor, and consultant whose work has appeared in various books, magazines, newspapers, and online.
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