Descent Into Madness: 48 Hours In The California Legislative System

Stereotypes are a common part of American culture. Often as not they are based on a grain of truth wrapped in a mile of exaggeration. While most of us enjoy a good laugh at the wacky world of California politics, a rational man might think that accounts of strange thinking on the Left Coast, like any good bass fishing story, were a little larger than life. After spending two days in the halls of California state government in Sacramento, it is apparent that the inmates are running the asylum.

California is struggling with the biggest budget crisis in its history. Take note, we are not talking about your run-of-the-mill budget shortfall where teachers and medical services are cut as a first-line response. California is so awash in red ink that on the day I arrived, the Sacramento District Attorney’s office filed a proposal with the state under which it will simply stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes because it cannot afford the staff. A subsequent component of that proposal will cease supervision of all paroled criminals, misdemeanor and felons alike, for lack of parole officers. Jails are releasing prisoners they can’t afford to house. The implications of this are staggering. The message to criminals is clear — hunting season is open on law-abiding Californians because the government can’t afford to prosecute you!

With the state budget coughing up blood like a bad horror movie, you would think that legislators would be focused on the urgent task of fixing the economy. Issues like tax-relief come to mind, or paring down excessive government waste. That would be the agenda of any competent legislator, but not for those who govern the land of Oz. Given all of the options open to the Democrat-led Assembly on Public Health, the best idea they could come up with to help the citizens of California was to dump time, resources and money into banning a bolt-action target rifle.

The catastrophic failure in judgment is California bill AB50, authored by Paul Koretz of the Hollywood area. In his bill, Mr. Koretz expressed a sky-is-falling need to ban .50 caliber target rifles by including them in the ever-changing definition of “assault weapon.” The strident urgency driving this bill was Mr. Koretz’ claims that these bolt-action rifles are a terrorist superweapon which have the ability to shoot planes out of the sky, punch holes through tanks, and kill people in armored limousines from four miles away.

Mr. Koretz should send his report to the Pentagon. Apparently the greatest assembly of military minds and experience on earth has universally overlooked the earth-shattering power of the humble target rifle. Perhaps they missed “superweapon day” in basic training. The more likely answer is that Assemblyman Koretz took on an ultra-liberal cause that most Democrats would have been ashamed to author, having no real idea what he was doing. During questioning on the floor of the committee, Koretz admitted, “I don’t understand much of this gun stuff, I just think they are bad.” Well, Koretz was half-right… he clearly doesn’t understand gun stuff.

Thankfully, there were some people on the Public Safety committee who do understand, people who made an effort to demand a few facts before signing another blank check for a bill listed as “fiscal impact not yet determined.” On the forefront of this group was Assemblyman Jay La Suer. Drawing on an extensive experience in law enforcement, La Suer knows a great deal about crime in California. He conferred with recognized experts on terrorism to either confirm or rebut the emotion-packed claims set forth in the bill. With a prosecutor’s focus on hard fact, La Suer began to grill the small handful of AB50 proponents. The facts he revealed told a very different story.

How many years have .50 caliber rifles been in civilian hands? Over 80 years.

In that time, how many people in America have been killed by these rifles? Zero.

How many aircraft have been shot, on the ground or in the air? Zero.

How many limousines have been shot through? Zero.

How many oil refineries have been blown up? Zero.

One by one La Suer dissected the claims of what was soon exposed as just another myopic gun ban pushed to center stage while the economy burned. At one point, La Suer’s growing disgust crossed its limit. The Assemblyman vehemently expressed his outrage that the time and resources of the state were being diverted from the economy to even consider such a blatant sham and he called on Koretz to pull the bill so they could get on with real work. Koretz simply smiled and refused, knowing the fix was in. His fellow Democrats on the committee seemed all-too eager to rubber-stamp the bill in spite of the facts.

But wait, you say! Government is a collective process; there are checks and balances to weed out the quacks, right? Well, sadly for Californians, the government seems to have a lot of checks and very few balances. That would certainly explain the thirty billion dollar budget crisis that threatens Governor Gray Davis with a growing prospect of being recalled.

On this day, the only other balance to help protect the California economy was Assemblyman Todd Spitzer. Like La Suer, Spitzer seemed very concerned that the Assembly was being fed a bag of lies. It was also clear that Spitzer had done his homework. He asked pointed questions regarding the basis of allegations made by Koretz, pointing out that numerous statements made in the bill were prefaced by “it is said that…”. Spitzer wanted to know who said it, and what tests had been run. He demanded facts in place of innuendo. As before, supporters of AB50 could point to no document, no experience, no test or study to support their claims. A representative of the Los Angeles Police Department with 26 years on the job admitted that in all that time he had never run into a single .50 caliber rifle involved in any way with any criminal activity.

The farce became even more apparent when La Suer asked the LAPD officer what weapons he had seen used in violent crimes. The answer ranged from handguns to knives, tools and the ever-popular “blunt objects.” La Suer asked if all of these items used to commit murder were presently banned, to which the officer answered no. “Do you think they should be banned?” La Suer asked calmly, and again the officer firmly answered no. It was then that La Suer cut to the chase. “Well then explain to me Officer, how is it that you don’t want to ban things that have killed people, yet you want to ban something that you admit has never killed anyone and has never been used in any sort of crime?” Speechless, the officer mumbled and backed away from the microphone.

The small handful of supporters for AB50 included the usual suspects; the Violence Policy Center, which survives by scaring unwitting citizens into making donations, as well as their ill-disguised offshoot, the Trauma Center. There was a representative of the Brady organization, a member of the Million Mom March and a handful of others. Their entire presentation lasted a few short minutes. This came as no great surprise — armed with no facts and only a handful of tall tales, even hardcore fanatics can only tap dance for so long.

In contrast, the line of opponents to AB50 filled the front table, ran down the length of the room and out into the hall. They ranged from industry representatives to shooting enthusiasts to military memorabilia collectors. Mr. Bill Ritchie, owner of EDM Arms, spoke passionately as the only rifle manufacturer left in the state of California. He explained that he could be forced to relocate if the bill became law. He spoke of the employees who would lose jobs, of the tens of thousands of tax dollars the state would lose, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually funneled to California machine shops, case manufacturers and other suppliers who rely on EDM’s business. But those were facts that went to the economy; those facts meant jobs and revenue. The Democrats on the Public Safety Committee made it all too clear that financial issues were not their concern. They were on a political agenda.

Ritchie was followed by Ronnie Barrett, President of Barrett Firearms, Inc., who elaborated on the critical role that the civilian firearm industry plays in developing technologies that are vital to the military. He demonstrated with clear evidence that several of the characterizations regarding the fifty-caliber rifle were based on exotic military-grade ammunition that has never been available to civilian marksman. By this point, Committee Chairman Mark Leno was beginning to sweat. The overwhelming evidence against the bill was threatening to erode the party-line support that everyone expected. While many politicians don’t mind selling out, few prefer to look like imbeciles on public television. As the hearing rolled on and on, core supporters of the bill were increasingly looking like the next rendition of the Three Stooges.

The suffering of Koretz and his ilk wasn’t over. Ed Worley of the National Rifle Association spoke up, drawing a very different parallel to the Committee’s attention. The term “assault weapon,” he noted, was coined to label a group of guns, which were deemed bad because they could spray a lot of bullets in a rapid, inaccurate fashion. Yet now a target rifle was being deemed an “assault weapon” because it could fire one bullet at a time in an accurate fashion. “So which way do you want it?” Worley demanded of Chairman Leno, “Am I the only person who finds this bizarre?” The Chairman did not have an answer to a very good question.

While speaker after speaker took the floor in opposition of the bill, Democratic members sat in dull disinterest. Just an hour earlier, Assemblywoman Goldberg found ample passion to debate a law that would make it illegal for a sports-event spectator to hurl his cellphone at an athlete, but she sat through the AB50 presentation with barely a peep. Assemblyman Longville, who earlier was casting votes self-admittingly having no idea which bill he was voting on, was likewise indifferent to the concerns of La Suer, Spitzer and most of the assembled audience. When asked on the sidelines how he was leaning, Longville rather blithely explained, “I don’t know. I’ll vote which ever way the speaker tells me to.” Not what he thinks, or God forbid, not what his constituents think, but what the Speaker thinks — a Speaker who is not even present to hear the facts. It must be disturbing to the voters of San Bernardino to learn they elected a Muppet to represent them.

The only Democrat who appeared to grasp the gravity of AB50 was Rudy Bermudez, who focused not on the ban of target rifles but the accompanying ban on any form of .50 caliber ammunition. “I have a .50 cal round on my mantle,” he explained, “given to me at the funeral of a friend killed in Viet Nam. By my reading of this bill, having that round is a crime.” A befuddled Koretz blustered that this was not his intention, but the wording was undeniable. The bill would treat possession of each round of .50 cal ammunition as a separate crime, even if you didn’t own a .50 cal rifle. One can only imagine the scores of pointless arrests that would follow passage of AB50. Californians wrongly made into criminals overnight could only hope that the criminal justice system would go bankrupt completely before they were hauled into court.

There was only one statement made by Koretz during the day that made any sense, although it was spoken two hours before the AB50 discussion. Arguing against criminalization of a specific act of personal violence, Koretz very rightly pointed out that laws would only deter law-abiding citizens. “The kind of people who will hurt someone else won’t be deterred by a law.” It was a momentary spark of human insight that made the very foundation of AB50 all the more insipid. We need to ban these rifles, he repeated ardently, to keep them out of the hands of terrorists. To suggest that a terrorist would be deterred from getting a rifle because it is banned is like suggesting that he would be deterred from parking his car bomb in front of a building because of a No Parking sign.

At the end of the day, partisan politics once again proved stronger than right or reason. Down the line the five Democrats on the committee cast their obligatory yes votes and AB50 moved one step closer to becoming law in California. Even staunch liberals in attendance were stunned. One woman leaving the proceeding stated, “I’m not a big fan of guns but right now I’m ashamed to say those people are from my party. What are they thinking?”

What indeed? While the tired, alarmist mantras of gun-control advocates have all but run their course across the nation, a handful of die-hards have no better thought process to offer Californians than a regurgitation of old lies. Their true motivation, it was revealed, fell into the most reprehensible bucket of political stereotypes. One member of the voting majority, who asked to remain nameless, set it out in no uncertain terms. “Everyone on the committee thinks he [Koretz] is an ass. He put up four bills this term and they were all idiotic. Three went down in flames so the Democratic caucus had to throw him a bone to keep him voting the right way on other bills. AB50 was the bone. It had nothing to do with facts.”

So there it was, the bottom line. It was as simple as it was ultimately believable, the only answer that made sense. In literally the same days and weeks that the world watched citizens of Iraq take to the streets in celebration of their first chance to vote in over 30 years, America has legislators willing to throw away the votes entrusted to their care as some sort of booby prize so the village idiot will continue to play ball. The word “disgusting” doesn’t begin to adequately describe this betrayal of the public trust.

Climbing aboard a plane headed back to reality, I could not but pity the citizens of California who find themselves hurtling towards the cliff of bankruptcy while their driver is asleep at the wheel. What will soon follow will make the closing scene of Thelma & Louise look like a minor fender-bender. Hospitals won’t have beds, criminals won’t have to worry about courts or jails, unemployment will soar and Californians will be left to warm themselves by the dying embers of a once-thriving economy. But hey, at least they won’t have to worry about a crazed terrorist shooting at their armored limousines from four miles away.

The brush with California legislation was revealing and truly saddening. Californians are hard working and creative — they deserve legislators with the same traits. In spite of thoughtful and realistic efforts by true leaders like Mr. La Suer and Mr. Spitzer, business-as-usual prevailed in the Democratic majority. With people like Gray Davis, Koretz, Goldberg, and Longville running the show, Californians are well-advised to become acquainted with the motto of the U.S. Navy SEALS: the only easy day was yesterday.

Michael Marks is Executive Director of the Fifty Caliber Policy Institute.