While much has changed over the last four decades, much hasn’t.
In 1989, a mass shooting killed five children and injured some 30 others at an elementary school in Stockton, inspiring California’s first ban on assault weapons.
Four years later, the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act became grounds for firearms advocates to launch a recall attempt against its namesake, now retired state Sen. David Roberti.
In light of the news last week that a federal judge based in San Diego deemed the ban unconstitutional and overturned it, praising the AR-15 rifle as “good for both home and battle” and comparing the weapon to a Swiss Army Knife, The Examiner caught up with Roberti about his gun control legislation decades later. Roberti also offered advice for politicians facing recall efforts today, like Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.
Q: What was going on back in 1989 that inspired you to write the assault weapons law?
A: A couple of things. There was a shooting at a fast food stand, a well-known one in San Diego County and a number of people were killed. We didn’t ban at that time the guns that were involved. About four or five years later, we had this other terrible killing of the young school children, I think they were Southeast Asian, in Stockton. And we suddenly decided we have to do something. Now people think, ‘Oh California is such a liberal state — no problem.’ That wasn’t the case back then. It was tough getting this stuff passed. In fact, whenever it was on the ballot California generally voted for looser gun restrictions … so this was a major all out effort for California of the 1980s and not California of the 2020s.
Q: Even in the 1980s, mass shootings were a problem?
A: Absolutely. I hate to say it but without the mass shootings these things wouldn’t have passed. We would never have been able to have the political muscle, as it was it was still very difficult.
Q: Can you talk more about how hard it was to get this passed? What was the climate like at the time?
A: The climate was not conducive to gun restrictions in the whole country but in California, also. It’s hard to explain to people, California 40 years ago wasn’t California today. It was also interesting we had some Republican support and conversely we had some Democratic opposition. Not like today where you have party lines. The bill was signed by (former Republican Governor) George Deukmejian. If he didn’t agree to sign it we would have never had the votes to override a veto. What’s interesting is he had run against (former Democrat Mayor of Los Angeles) Tom Bradley and gun control was a big issue that had hurt Tom Bradley. George Deukmejian took Tom Bradley on (over) gun control, then the first big issue on gun control that hit Deukmejian’s desk, he actually signed it.
Q: Was your ban specifically geared toward preventing mass shootings going forward? If that was the idea, how successful has it been given that we’ve continued to see mass shootings up until the present day?
A: We obviously have had mass shootings. But the issue is, we never thought this was going to eliminate every last mass shooting in California for a couple of reasons. First, people can bring their guns in from out of state. And secondly, not everybody follows the law. But, the question should be, ‘Would things have been the same or better if we didn’t pass the bill?’ … Certainly the elimination of the law, or the invalidation of the law, isn’t going to improve the situation. Otherwise, we might as well get rid of our murder laws because we still have murders. That’s an argument which the opposition used which just drives me crazy. ‘We have shootings so what do we have the legislation for?’ Well, for very good reasons.
Q: This takes us to what happened last week with the federal judge’s ruling in San Diego. It sounded like he’s very fond of assault weapons and had some nice things to say about them.
A: It sure sounded like it. I didn’t read the whole opinion, but the excerpts I read in the paper? He had a love affair with assault weapons.
Q: What do you say to this judge and his decision?
A: Just look at his own community in San Diego. The mass shooting there, I think it was like 20 people. [To say] that’s no worse than the threat by a Swiss Army Knife, it’s ridiculous. It’s the words of somebody who is just so blind to the cruelty and so ideological that he refuses to see anything even in his own backyard as terrible as that. That’s probably as terrible a crime as ever in California.
Q: What’s your understanding of where the law stands now after the judge’s ruling?
A: I expect that the Attorney General of California is going to make an appeal and I expect that that will be successful. What the final outcome of the legislation is, I don’t know. The judiciary has shifted and many people fear that it’s a very ideological judiciary. We will see. The influence of the (U.S.) Supreme Court is enormous. Judges sense judicial trends and whether this is a long term judicial trend or whether’s it’s a (former President Donald) Trump aberration your guess is as good as mine. [Editor’s note: U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of the Southern District of California who overturned the ban recently was appointed by President George W. Bush.]
Q: Conservative-leaning judges might be more emboldened to make a decision knowing that if it gets kicked up to the Supreme Court, they might have them on their side?
Q: We just had the San Jose mass shooting the other week. What should California do going forward to prevent incidents like this from happening? Is there something more extreme that needs to occur than banning assault weapons?
A: There’s two things that could be done. You could apply it to rapid-fire handguns. But essentially I think California’s laws are pretty strong. You can’t convert a rifle to an assault gun in California. … The big thing is at the federal level. … I wouldn’t have a problem with background checks any time a gun is purchased. Usually you find that there was no background check at the time the culprit purchased his weapon.
Q: Are gun control laws the only solution or do you see another solution out there?
A: In fighting crime, no. Gun control is never the only solution, but is a major part of it.
Q: Let’s talk about the recall attempt mounted against you, considering how popular recalls have become in California. We have Gov. Gavin Newsom very likely facing a recall later this year. Here in San Francisco, we have our progressive prosecutor, District Attorney Chesa Boudin, facing a possible recall, as well. What happened with your situation? Can you take our readers back, and explain why were you facing a recall attempt?
A: I was going to be out of office in 1994, because of term limits. I remember I got a call from my staff, this was like in January 1994, and they said that a recall had qualified. I frankly, I didn’t even know that they were circulating petitions. It was so sub rosa. But it had qualified, and I had to get ready. I’ve got to fight this thing. It took up all my time and my effort. I was planning to run for state treasurer, and I did run for state treasurer, but I had to put that on hold because the money I had accumulated had to go to the recall. So I made a decision that I’d rather lose the treasurer’s race, which I did, than to be recalled on a major issue. So that’s the decision that we made and so all of our efforts until maybe about five or six weeks before the June election went into the recall. It was totally formulated, totally pushed by the NRA or NRA affiliates.
In fact the president of the NRA… came into my district polling place and wanted to lecture me on the recall. I said you don’t want to talk to me, you want to talk to the woman [Michelle Scully] whose husband was killed in the 101 California (office) building in San Francisco. [Editor’s note: In 1993, a gunman fatally shot nine people, and injured six others, during a legal deposition hearing at a downtown law firm.] (Scully) flew down to help me and thank goodness because that was just a major shooting and a very sad story.
Q: The recall against you wasn’t successful. But can you discuss how difficult it is for a group to organize a recall? How hard is it to qualify a recall, and also be successful?
A: Maybe it’s my own personal experience, but I think that it’s also because of how I feel about government in general, I think recalls should only be used if you have what approaches criminal malfeasance in office. I think that’s what they were intended to do in the first place. Now you have recalls simply because you don’t like the cut of somebody’s hair. It’s just ridiculous. The recall against me was like the first one in 80 years. We never thought in terms of being recalled, and I guess having that over your head isn’t a bad thing as long as it’s for reasonable purposes. But recalls simply because, even a recall because you don’t like where the governor had dinner one night, it’s just ridiculous.
Q: It sounds like you don’t think the recall is a democratic tool that should be employed very often?
A: No. It should be only for malfeasance in office. Maybe other reasons could come up, but there was good reason why we didn’t do it for like 80 years. It impacts your ability to do your job. As soon as I was being recalled, everything you do circulates around the recall and that wasn’t intended.
Q: It seems like they come to symbolize more than just your term, right? It was really all about this assault weapons ban as opposed to being about your tenure?
A: In my case, yes, the recall was all about the assault weapons ban. At that time, they were trying to recall me on any issue they could think of. Actually, being about this one issue probably helped. I didn’t win in any massive landslide. It was comfortable but it wasn’t like the whole world was outraged.
Q: Are there any lessons that politicians like Gavin Newsom or Chesa Boudin could learn from the recall effort against you?
A: Tend to your business, even though you might be compelled to say this doesn’t occupy your time. You ignore the recall and pretend it’s not happening at your own peril, and therefore you have to take whatever motions that you have to in order to protect yourself. You’re not just protecting yourself, you’re protecting a whole host of things you care about because that’s what formulates the recall. It’s more than about you. It’s about what you stand for.
This interview has been edited for clarity.