Californians are armed and dangerous. More than a quarter of a million handguns are sold in the state every year. Between 1983 and 1987--the latest period for which statistics are available--more than 1.3 million handgun transactions were conducted. And that doesn't count the thousands upon thousands of rifle and shotgun sales that are not recorded by the state.
Several motives account for the accumulation of this giant private arsenal. There is hunting, of course, and target shooting and collecting. But fear of crime is a prime force. Ask people at a firing range why they have guns, and they might say they love to shoot targets. But keep talking and they're likely to add that another reason is personal protection.
Statistics indicate that owning a gun is a deadly gamble. Figures gathered by the California Departments of Justice and Health Services indicate that a gun is far less likely to be used to slay an assailant than it is to be stolen, used in a suicide, an accidental death or the killing of an acquaintance, spouse or relative.
In California in 1987, 19,475 handguns were stolen; 1,992 people committed suicide with guns; 1,740 willful homicides were committed with guns (68% of all willful homicide victims were acquaintances, spouses or relatives of the killers); 128 people died in firearms accidents; 67 criminals were shot to death in justifiable homicides by private citizens.
Even so, no special license or safety training is necessary to buy a firearm in California. Some gun owners treat their weapons with great respect, fire them regularly at shooting ranges and try to keep them secure. Others have never even taken the time to learn how to properly handle their weapons.
"If someone is contemplating purchasing a firearm for their home or place of business," urges Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block,"they should be prepared to accept the legal and moral consequences involved . . . .Learn how to use the gun appropriately and maintain it safely . . . so it doesn't become the vehicle for a personal tragedy."
THE NORDLOFS, Gun Enthusiasts
THERE ARE A LOT OF PARENTS with teen-age sons in violence-torn Los Angeles who would probably rather see their kids handling poisonous snakes than guns. But Jeanne and Brian Nordlof, who live in eastern Los Angeles County, thought a gun might be just the thing to help keep their 16-year-old son, Adrian, occupied. It wasn't just any gun. It was an old-style black powder rifle that the youngster had to put together from a kit. "It keeps him busy and off the streets," Jeanne says.
Guns are a big part of the Nordlofs' lives. The family owns several rifles and pistols. "I keep them probably first and foremost for home security," says Brian, 38, an accountant and a member of the National Rifle Assn. Brian has been shooting since he was 9 years old, when his father took him to a junior rifle club in Long Beach.
Brian, in turn, introduced his daughters to guns when they were 4 or 5 years old. He took the girls--daughters by a previous marriage--to the desert with him to shoot targets. "I clearly explained that it (the gun) would kill them if they messed around with it," Brian says. He was confident enough in his lesson to show the girls where the gun was kept at home. "I'm very gun-safety-conscious," he says.
Jeanne, 45, a clinical chemist, owns a .357 Colt King Cobra revolver that she fires at a target range. Would she shoot a person with it? "Me?" she asks. "Absolutely. If someone were to come after me to do me bodily harm, I would have no qualms about it."
Protection is only one reason the Nordlofs keep guns. They are also avid target shooters and reload their own ammunition. Brian is a devotee of black-powder rifles and uses one of the old-fashioned weapons to shoot targets at 100 yards. A black-powder rifle requires the knowledge to load a charge of gunpowder and the patience to pack a pad down the barrel with a rod and drop in a rifle ball before each shot is fired--a world of skill contrasted with the simple trigger-finger reflex needed by gangsters to shoot bursts from modern semiautomatic assault weapons. Still, Brian was opposed to the ban on assault weapons adopted by the California Legislature in May. "It's not the weapon; it's the people," Brian says, echoing the "Guns Don't Kill People" position of the NRA.
Jeanne thinks personal responsibility is the answer to preventing firearms violence. "It's like cars," she says. "You have all these regulations and you still have people out on the freeways drunk."
The Nordlofs' enthusiasm for firearms doesn't extend to hunting. "I don't believe in shooting animals," Jeanne says, and Brian agrees. "I don't see the need," he says, "to go out and shoot a deer and cut off its head and hang it on the wall."
KERRY ALBERTINE, Singer / House Painter
MOST OF THE TARGETS at the Beverly Hills Gun Club are placed only halfway down the range as the shooters bang away, punching holes here and there through the paper silhouettes. But Kerry Albertine's target is pushed to the rear of the range--the full 50 feet. She stands, legs apart, arms locked in front of her as she squeezes off round after round from her revolver through the center of the target, forming a tight cluster of holes in the chest of the silhouette.
Not bad for someone who had never fired a handgun until last fall.
Albertine, a 32-year-old singer, songwriter and house painter who lives in the southwestern L.A. area, is seeking the Zen of shooting a gun. When she was a child, she occasionally fired at tin cans with a shotgun, and as an adult, she kept such a weapon--a broken-down relic--in her apartment but didn't give it much thought. Then last year, her mother was mugged in Sherman Oaks. Albertine was outraged and began to think of her own safety. "I'm a woman," she says. "I live alone . . . and in a questionable area." ."
So she took the old shotgun into a gun dealer to see if it could be fixed. Instead, she bought a secondhand Colt .38 Police Special. At first, she was intimidated by the gun. "I didn't even want to touch it," she recalls.
But after lessons in handling and firing the weapon, she was sending bullets through the chest of the targets. "I realized," she says, "that learning to defend myself can't hurt if I go about it in the proper way--to learn the Zen of shooting, if there is one. . . .When I handle this (gun), I am not distracted by anything. I am with it. That's what I mean by the Zen."
But Albertine remains ambivalent about the weapon. She doesn't want to glamorize it, preferring to be photographed with a target, proof of her new expertise.
GILBERT ALSTON, Superior Court Judge
THERE HAVE been times when Gilbert Alston took comfort from the cold steel of a handgun concealed under his robes while hearing a criminal case in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Pasadena. These days, the 58-year-old judge leaves courtroom security to his bailiff after coming to the conclusion that his own gun might create an added problem during a crisis. But he still occasionally wears a holstered .357- or .38-caliber revolver on his way to or from the courthouse.
"I regret feeling the necessity to carry it," says Alston, who is an advocate of strict gun control. "If I'm handling a particularly hot case involving gang members, I may be armed going to and from court."
Like more than two dozen other judges in Los Angeles County, Alston has a permit to carry a concealed weapon. A former district attorney's investigator, he says he carries a gun because of a disturbing increase in violence against witnesses in criminal proceedings.
"Probably some time around 10 years ago," he recalls, "I began to notice the kind of activity that we never saw before. When I was an investigator, we would assure witnesses that they could come forward and testify and nothing would happen because those kinds of things you saw in the movies didn't really happen."
Not so any more. Alston tells of one case in which a witness testified at a preliminary hearing and then, during the lunch hour, was murdered by the defendant who was so ignorant of the legal process that he didn't realize that the damning testimony had been recorded for use at his trial.
If Alston had his way, the possession of guns would be limited, except for strictly regulated sporting purposes, to law enforcement officers. "A husband and a wife have an argument," he says. "One of them goes and gets a gun, and the argument is settled permanently."
As for carrying a gun himself, he maintains: "Once we have formulated some rational kind of arms control in our society, I will be the first to turn in my gun. . .You could say that I don't believe in unilateral disarmament."
DANIEL YU, Grocery Store Guard
DANIEL YU SITS ON A milk case just inside the front door of his father's little grocery store in South-Central Los Angeles. The young man casually leans against the meat counter, a .45-caliber semiautomatic pistol holstered under his left arm and a smaller, backup gun tucked under his right. Yu, 25, is on guard duty seven days a week, from the time the store opens in the morning until it closes at night, to protect his father, mother and sister. If robbers come in, Yu says, he is ready. "I'd have to kill them. . . it's just like a war. If you don't kill them, you die. You have no chance. . . if I don't have a gun, they'll come in and kill my family and take the money."
There is, of course, reason for any store owner to fear holdups, and South-Central Los Angeles has become a virtual free-fire zone for competing gangs. "Everybody carries guns," Yu says of the neighborhood. "Young gang-bangers . . . they shoot for fun."
The storefront has been fired on and the business has been burglarized 32 times, he says, but so far it has not been held up. Sometimes, people come in, look around, see Yu sitting on his milk crate with his .45 and walk back out. One time, a man walked in and Yu spotted a gun poking out of his pocket. "I pulled (my) gun out," Yu says, "and he said, 'I'm cool, I'm cool,' and he went out." That was the only time Yu has pulled the gun in self-defense.
Yu says he is concerned not only with the safety of his family, but also with the safety of the store's customers. "On check-cashing day," he says, "they come to the store. . . . They buy stuff and go outside. The robbers take their money."
Yu, who shoots targets competitively, practices at a range three times a week. A native of South Korea, he became a U.S. citizen this year and believes strongly in his right to possess guns for protection. In addition to the weapons he wears at work, he owns a .12-gauge shotgun and four other handguns.
What about statistics indicating that guns are dangerous for their owners and their friends and families? "Older Korean people think that way, (that) if you have a gun, they (robbers) will kill you," Yu responds. "But if you know how to use a gun, you can protect yourself. . . .The police are not going to protect all of the people. So I have to protect my family myself. That's my job."
PETER LEWIS, Businessman
PETER LEWIS SOMETIMES CARRIES a cheap handgun for self-protection while on business. It's a .25-caliber semiautomatic pistol that he wouldn't mind losing to police confiscation if he were stopped for carrying a loaded weapon within the city limits, which is a misdemeanor. He bought three of the handguns at once just for that purpose. "If, for some reason, I got stopped," Lewis says, "they could go ahead and take it, and I wouldn't care." He could also be jailed and fined, of course, but he's willing to take that chance.
Lewis, 38, is an independent businessman who deals in real estate and video products. On the first floor of his comfortable home in West Los Angeles he keeps two rifles and a handgun. Upstairs, he keeps two shotguns and two more handguns. He says he has stored his guns in special places at his home and is sure that the weapons will not cause a tragedy, as sometimes happens. "There won't be any accidents," he says with confidence.
The son of a Santa Monica reserve police officer, Lewis has been around guns all his life. He likes to target shoot and owns an $800 .45-caliber handgun with special sights and trigger that he uses for the sport. But the small arsenal stashed in Lewis' home in his well-to-do neighborhood is more for protection than sporting purposes.
The neighborhood is changing, he says. Suspicious-looking young men seem to be around a lot these days. On one occasion strangers unsuccessfully tried to force their way in his front door while only his wife and daughter were home. Recently Lewis' wife, Kathleen, has reluctantly agreed to learn to shoot. "You can look in her eyes and tell she's afraid of them (guns)," he says. "But she's also afraid of someone breaking into the house."
Would Lewis be able to shoot in self-defense?
"If I had to," he answers, adding, "I'd be remorseful that I had to shoot someone. But I'd be relieved that I was OK."
VIVIEN BONZO, Restaurant Owner
VIVIEN BONZO,the owner of La Golondrina Cafe on historic Olvera Street in Los Angeles, keeps a loaded .38-caliber revolver at home under her bed and another at the restaurant. She has never fired either weapon, but Bonzo, 32, is somehow confident that she will be able to shoot a handgun in an emergency. She first bought a gun during the Night Stalker attacks in 1985 and says her fear at that time was compounded by memories of past assaults. "I have been assaulted on a number of different occasions," she says. "I've had the kinds of experiences that make me aware of the violent and destructive nature of human beings at times."
She was once attacked with a 12-inch-long screwdriver. "I guess single women sometimes feel a little more vulnerable. It just gives me comfort to know that I have a weapon at my disposal if I need it."
As for the gun in the restaurant, she says, it is needed because the police are too overworked to provide adequate protection: "I just feel that you have to provide your own security. We're not vigilantes, but certainly we want to be able to defend ourselves."
Despite all this, Bonzo has never fired a gun. "They kind of explained to me at the gun shop how to use it," she says. "How to cock it . . . how to load it . . . I realize there's more to it than that, but like most people, I'm very short on time." Even so, she feels capable of defending herself. "If my attacker had a gun," she says, "I probably would aim to kill, but if he didn't, I probably would aim to wound."