LOS ANGELES — First tobacco, now guns.
In the state where Wyatt Earp retired after a career of busting gunslingers, a grass-roots rebellion against handguns is now percolating.
Adopting the same tactics used to successfully spread the ban on smoking in public places, California towns and cities are at the vanguard of a national trend to pass local ordinances banning cheap handguns or "Saturday Night Specials."
This year alone, 13 California cities and towns have prohibited the sale and/or manufacture of inexpensive, easily concealed handguns. Many gun owners, manufacturers, and pistol enthusiasts say the ordinances are illegal and have more to do with appearing tough in an election year than in preventing crime. The community battles brewing here reflect a growing exasperation by citizens with federal and state legislative inaction in the face of monied opposition.
"The people here are speaking their minds," says Mary Leigh Blek, an Orange County resident whose college-age son was killed in 1994 by three 15-year-olds wielding "junk" guns. In the wake of her son's murder, Ms. Blek formed Orange County Citizens for the Prevention of Gun Violence to lobby local leaders to regulate such weapons. "If we have to get this done community by community, that's what we'll do," says Blek.
In the past two months, the list of smaller towns passing gun-control laws, such as San Pablo and Belmont, has grown to include the more sizable cities of San Francisco and, this month, Los Angeles. Dozens more are in the works as antigun activists have targeted 470 cities and 59 counties.
"Just as Americans 15 years ago finally started saying they are sick of having smoke blown in their face in the middle of their salad course, communities here are saying they are fed up with guns," says Mark Perchuk, director of Californians for Reasonable Gun Laws.
The momentum in California is being watched closely nationwide, where polls show a majority of American voters (as much as 80 percent) favors some form of gun control. New York City and Washington already have tight restrictions on the sale of handguns.
But the same public concern over crime has prompted at least 31 states to pass laws in recent years allowing people to carry concealed weapons.
The flurry here over banning handguns actually began about three years ago, after several high-profile gun killings. Coalitions of antigun groups and public-safety advocates began uniting to canvas voters and cajole politicians.
Volunteers launched door-to-door campaigns to educate local citizens. Activists manned phone banks and sidewalk booths at local malls. They printed newsletters and mailed out brochures.
The message: Fill the loophole left by the Gun Control Act of 1968. That law, passed following the assassination of Robert Kennedy, banned the importation of handguns not "particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes." Basically, small and poorly made pistols. But the law put no restrictions on the sale of the same types of guns by domestic manufacturers.
Today, says the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), these inexpensive guns are 3.4 times more likely to be involved in violent crimes than are handguns from other major manufacturers. Ironically perhaps, but also of symbolic importance in the current policy battles, six handgun manufacturers in Southern California dominate the production of such guns.
"The movement has been able to gain momentum because city council members live much closer to their voting communities where it has been harder for pro-gun lobbies to come in and strong-arm them," says Andrew McGuire, director of the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention.
But the new ordinances are being challenged by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the legal battle over who has jurisdiction - the state or the cities - may end up in the California Supreme Court. The first lawsuit is scheduled against West Hollywood in Los Angeles Superior Court on Oct. 2.
NRA officials say their case is better fought in the courts and at the state level. Last November, Wisconsin passed a law that prohibited local gun-control ordinances that were more restrictive than the state law.
"We are convinced that these ordinances are a violation of state law because local communities don't have the legal authority to regulate sales," says Steve Helsley, a state lobbyist for the NRA. He says local bans discriminate against poorer minorities who buy the handguns (for as little as $40 each) for protection against inner-city crime.
"This is not just a gun issue, but a public safety issue as well," says Larry Todd, police chief of Los Gatos and past president of the California Police Chiefs Association. But experts at the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, have concluded that .25 caliber, .32 caliber and .38 caliber automatic handguns manufactured by the six Southern California-based manufacturers are both unreliable and unsafe - and that they are not well suited for the purpose of personal protection.
"We have more standards on a baby rattle or teddy bear than we do on guns that kill people," says Chief Todd.
Mr. Helsley rejects such safety arguments. "If these guns were blowing up in people's hands or causing problems you can bet that the trial lawyers would be suing like crazy," he says. "That's not happening because the guns are safe. Inexpensive doesn't mean unsafe."
Both sides agree the litigation will help clarify state law as well as define safety features that are currently unregulated. They will also help define which guns are intended to be banned under law.
Whatever their eventual court outcomes, proponents say the scores of new battles here are sending strong messages to state and federal politicians. A third of the state's 30-plus million population has already said "yes" to the new controls.
Will ban reduce crime?
But detractors say the moves are just symbolic, and lack teeth until the court action over jurisdiction - known as preemption statutes - are settled.
"We feel the moves are a way to make communities feel good but are essentially illusionary," says Carolyn Herbertson of Gun Owners of California, a lobby group with 25,000 members.
Pro-gun groups have argued that there is no evidence such controls reduce crime. Even some supporters of handgun bans say any beneficial effect might be delayed for from one to five years because of the number of such firearms already available on the streets.
"No one knows whether restricting sales of guns like these will be effective in halting crime," says Ellen Robinson-Haynes, researcher at the Violence Prevention Research Program.