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Behind California Recall Effort: Gun-Control Backlash

A BID to recall one of California's most powerful politicians could turn into the latest national test of the politics of gun control - with important lessons for candidates in an election year.

David Roberti, the top-ranking Democrat in the California state Senate, is the target of a recall effort by a coalition of groups upset over everything from his ethics to his stands on crime.

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While the critics' grievances cover a range of topics, one of the most vocal and visible groups in the anti-Roberti drive is pro-gun activists. They are miffed at the senator for authoring and helping to pass the nation's first ban on military-style semiautomatic assault weapons in 1989 and his current efforts to limit the number of bullets that can be held in rifle and pistol magazines.

Rallying to Mr. Roberti's defense are a number of top local law-enforcement officials and gun-control advocates, such as Handgun Control Inc., the group spearheaded by Sarah Brady that recently helped shepherd though a federal law requiring a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases. Thus the battle is shaping up as another plebiscite on guns at a time of complex emotions on crime and violence.

``There are those who are going to turn it into a national referendum on gun control,'' says Larry Berg, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

On the surface, a recall effort would seem odd. Because of California's term-limit laws, Roberti must give up his Senate seat in November, though he is planning to run for state treasurer this year. Critics say they want him out no matter how much time is left in his tenure. If the senator were recalled - something that hasn't happened to a state lawmaker in California since 1914 - it would likely hamper his bid to be treasurer.

Anti-Roberti activists have gathered more than 45,000 signatures in their bid for a recall election. That is more than twice the number needed, though the signatures still need to be verified. That process is expected to be completed within the next few weeks. If enough are validated, an election could be held as early as this spring.

Critics fault Roberti for being ``soft'' on crime and for allowing political corruption to flourish during his 13-year tenure as Senate president pro tem. They point to three former state senators who have been convicted on corruption charges in recent years as a result of a federal probe. They also say he doesn't accurately represent the residents of his district.

The coalition opposed to him describes itself as a broad-based group of victims' rights advocates, environmentalists, term-limit supporters, and others.

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``We are not a bunch of assault-rifle extremists or crazies,'' says Bill Dominguez, chairman of the Coalition to Restore Government Integrity, an umbrella organization. Roughly a third of the coalition's member groups, however, are antigun-control advocates, and even Mr. Dominguez admits gun enthusiasts have contributed much of the funding for the drive.

Some of these activists have been outspoken in saying they're seeking retribution for Roberti's gun-control stands - and hoping to send a message that the gun lobby isn't dead. Roberti seems happy to frame it all as a gun-control debate. At a press conference last week, where he was flanked by local police officials and gun-control supporters, the senator vowed to stand up to the ``gun extremists, the bully boys.'' He portrayed the issue as being about ``political courage, the willingness to take on a powerful special interest.''

That Roberti is fighting back shows how seriously he is taking the recall effort. His handlers are well aware that in a special election, where the turnout is usually low, one group can have a big impact.

Nor can the senator bank on support in his district. In a special election in 1992, the first year he ran in the 20th district, Roberti garnered only 43 percent of the vote, barely beating a GOP newcomer. Still, the district is heavily Democratic, and voters in general have traditionally been hesitant to remove lawmakers.

``Historically, it has been difficult to recall lawmakers at the state level unless there are charges of malfeasance,'' says Mr. Berg. ``But these are not normal times....Voters are very disturbed with incumbents.''

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