George Deukmejian was not a flashy governor. Wasn't a spellbinder. But he was a bold leader on a perilous front: gun control.
In a state that prizes entertainers and celebrities, Deukmejian twice got elected governor anyway. He was the quiet-spoken, strong-willed type. “Iron Duke,” they called him.
Gary Cooper would have been perfect for the part. Think “High Noon.”
We're coming up on the 24th anniversary of Iron Duke's outdrawing the gun lobby to enact the nation's first assault weapons ban — an action hardly anyone could have predicted, given his political past.
Deukmejian owed his gubernatorial election in 1982, in large part, to gun owners. Then the attorney general, he opposed an impractical gun control ballot measure that was considered too extreme by everyone except the far left. But it was supported by Deukmejian's Democratic opponent, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. The initiative would have required the registration of all existing handguns and banned future sales of new handguns.
The Deukmejian campaign targeted voters in the Central Valley and Inland Empire — aiming its message particularly at gun owners — telling them where the two candidates stood on the proposed handgun ban.
“Not only did we drive the vote of gun owners,” recalls campaign strategist Ken Khachigian, “we pushed Bradley off to the left. We had been having trouble getting people to see him as anything but a centrist, good-guy mayor.”
The gun measure wound up losing by a whopping 25.6 percentage points. Deukmejian eked out a 1.2-point victory.
Fast forward to Deukmejian's second term on Jan. 17, 1989.
A young, racist drifter clad in combat gear and armed with an AK-47 assault rifle shot up a school yard in Stockton, killing five Southeast Asian immigrant children. Patrick Purdy fired more than 100 rounds, wounding 30 other kids — mostly minorities — and one teacher before killing himself.