Gun Dealer Backs Up His Ban on Assault Rifles With Action

On the issue of gun control, at least, I wish Randy Garell were President of the United States instead of George Bush. The National Rifle Assn. should wish the same thing.

Garell, you will recall, is the Costa Mesa gun store owner who got national attention by banning assault rifles from his stock after a crazed young man used such a weapon to mow down a schoolyard full of children. Garell's action caused such a furor that he called a news conference to explain his feelings, and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates came down to lend him support. So did Costa Mesa Police Chief David L. Snowden.

At the press conference, Garell said that because he was "greatly disturbed" by the schoolyard killings, he decided to respond to the plea of police officials at every level by selling off his current stock of military weapons to law enforcement agencies and banning their future sale in his store.

That was 3 weeks ago, and the spotlight has since shifted from Garell to more visible power centers. President Bush got into the act by refusing to support a federal ban on assault weapons (his wife has taken the opposite position). And legislators from Sacramento to Washington--prodded by a surge of public anger--are struggling with the wording of laws to restrict these weapons.

So what has happened meanwhile to Randy Garell? Has he had any second thoughts about his actions? Did he indeed get rid of his assault weapons? Is he distressed at the intransigent position the NRA has taken on this issue?

I asked him these questions the other day and found him to be an amiable, thoughtful man still willing to give of time from his work to try to explain his feelings on an issue on which he believes the sides have become increasingly--and distressingly--polarized.

He did, indeed, clear out the military weapons in his Grant Boys store. "Within a week of making that decision," he said, "I got rid of the entire stock, either by selling them to law enforcement people or returning them to the vendor."

He admits to having second thoughts, but for economic rather than philosophical reasons. "I suppose we have second thoughts about everything," he said. "I could have made a tremendous amount of money the last few weeks selling these weapons. You tell Americans they can't have something, and they want it. But the more I think about it, the more certain I am that I did the right thing for me and for my business. This was a personal decision. I make no judgments for anyone else."

In the first week after his decision, Garell estimates that he received more than a thousand phone calls. "I'd say 99% were favorable, and half of those calls came from gun owners and NRA members like me who feel it is important for the gun industry to do something to police itself. We still support the NRA, but on this particular issue, they should be doing more. Life is compromise, and the NRA is going to have to move toward the middle ground that protects the rights of hunters and sportsmen and collectors and also protects the rights and safety of the public."

Garell says he hasn't had any heat from the NRA and doesn't expect any "because, as a whole, the gun industry allows people to make their own choices and respects them for it."

But he is also fearful that "a lot of the legislators writing these laws don't know anything about guns. They have to see the larger picture too." He would like to see a body of specialists created--"people who really know and understand guns"--who could evaluate new weapons that come into the state and decide if they should be made publicly available.

"We believe in the existing rules," he said, "and follow them very tightly in my store. We don't bend them for anybody. I strongly support a 15-day wait on the purchase of all weapons in the state of California--and most of the people who have been in my store the last few weeks offering support feel the same way."

He concluded rather wistfully: "I went into this business believing that I should never risk making a customer mad. I broke that rule a few weeks ago by taking a larger view. But if we can't all do that, we're going to be in trouble--not just in gun control but in housing and law enforcement and criminal justice and other areas where new thinking is also badly needed."

In the familiar cacophony of NRA cliches, Garell sounds like a voice in the wilderness. But instead of listening, the NRA continues its broken record of "Gun control is one step toward turning America into a totalitarian state" and "What you'll be doing is disarming the average man and woman, making them more vulnerable to the bad guys, who will have no problem obtaining these weapons"--both arguments made repeatedly by NRA representatives in the current flap.

This kind of baloney has been keeping gun laws off the books for years. But every once in a while in this country, a public issue comes up for grabs in which the answer is so clear, so obvious, that debating it approaches the theater of the absurd. Such an issue is the banning of assault rifles.

If the NRA had any sense--and I've seen little evidence of that--it would listen to the moderates in its midst who could help hammer out the kind of compromise suggested by Randy Garell. The alternative--at long last--may be punitive laws urged by people who are finally fed up with the excesses of the gun lobby.

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