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Don Perata recently told state lawmakers in Sacramento of the political perils, yet the necessities of gun control legislation in California. (D. Ross Cameron/Staff)

As the first step in preparing their response to gun violence amid the national outrage that sprang from the mass slaying of schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., California legislators last month did something they do too little in an era of term limits.

Since none of them has been around the Capitol long enough to remember lessons from the past, they called in two former Senate leaders who took on gun legislation in their time.

The wisdom of some of their advice has already been validated.

The opening witnesses at a Jan. 28 committee hearing were David Roberti and Don Perata, former presidents pro tem of the Senate. Roberti had been one of the co-authors of state's original assault weapons ban in 1989; a decade later, Perata spearheaded legislation to tighten that law.

Roberti cautioned today's lawmakers that this is an issue like no other, largely because of the passion of the opposition.

His own political career was cut short in part because opponents of the assault weapons ban launched a recall against him in 1994, an effort backed by the National Rifle Association. Although Roberti handily prevailed, he spent nearly $1 million, depleting him of resources for his primary campaign for state treasurer later that year, which he lost.

The political perils of taking on gun violence are real, Roberti testified. But he said the public memory of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre will be long-lasting, creating an environment in which the public will be receptive to reforms.


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He said his interest in the issue largely sprung from the 1984 attack at a McDonald's restaurant in San Isidro, in which a gunman armed with an Uzi semi-automatic rifle killed 21 people and injured 19. At the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

But memory of that tragedy faded, and with it any momentum for action. Today, he said, few people even remember the event, which has been overwhelmed over the years by numbing repetition.

It wasn't until 1989 that Roberti was able to shepherd the nation's first assault weapons ban through the Legislature and get a signature from Republican Gov. George Deukmejian.

The impetus was the mass shooting at Stockton's Cleveland Elementary School in January of that year. In that case, the shooter was armed with an assault rifle.

The number of fatalities in Stockton was far fewer than at San Isidro, but it took place at a school. Five children were killed, and 29 were wounded.

The image of young children being slaughtered in a schoolyard is something that haunts the memory and does not soon fade, Roberti said.

Perata advised today's lawmakers of the personal risks. He recounted that he felt compelled to get a concealed-weapons permit after receiving what he believed to be credible threats against his life.

To be sure, gun control is an issue in which there are many principled opponents. But it is also one that stirs the paranoia of troubled individuals who irrationally hoard guns.

While much has been written in the post-Sandy Hook public debate about a spike in U.S. gun sales in recent years, lost in some of the reporting is the striking fact that a declining number of Americans are doing the buying. The percentage of households with a gun has dropped by more than a third since 1990. Fewer people are buying more guns.

It is unsurprising, then, that when police last week arrested a man suspected of making death threats against Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, they found a stash of weapons and illegal explosives.

Yee is the author of this year's bill to further tighten the assault weapons ban. In a statement released following the arrest last week, he said he will press on with his proposed legislation.

The personal perils, regrettably, are ones that lawmakers must individually assess as they consider gun violence legislation this year. For the sake of civil society, Californians must hope they respond only to the evidence and their consciences in deciding how to proceed.

But the political perils that Roberti recounted are another matter. They suggest that lawmakers should tread judiciously, pursuing only those ideas upon which there is demonstrated public support. Requiring registration for ammunition purchases, closing loopholes in the assault weapons ban and beefing up enforcement of existing restrictions on gun ownership all fall in that category.

As lawmakers move forward on the issue this year, they should keep in mind the sober advice that Perata offered at the beginning of the process.

"This is serious business for serious people," he told them.