Contentious debate erupted Monday as the Pasadena City Council, groping for ways to deal with youth violence, considered what is believed to be the first law of its kind restricting bullet sales.
Young and old alike, in ties and T-shirts, packed the council chambers to express views on the proposed law designed to curb handgun violence involving teen-agers.
Depending on who was talking, the proposal amounts to either a quixotic and ineffective gesture or a bold and worthwhile first step in the right direction.
Although supporters believed before the meeting that there were enough votes to pass the law, it was unclear by late Monday night what might happen.
Early on, Councilman Isaac Richard, reacting to pro-ordinance comments made by the city's police chief, momentarily stormed from the proceedings, pounding his fist on the dais and shouting, "Not in my country!"
The law would require that anyone who buys bullets in Pasadena provide identification showing proof of age and complete a registration form listing the amount, brand and type of ammunition purchased.
The records, which would be much the same as those for pawnshop purchases and would be monitored by police, could prove helpful in solving gun-related crimes, Pasadena police said, particularly gang crimes in which witnesses are reluctant to come forward.
Current law prohibits juveniles from purchasing ammunition, but ordinance proponents say minors can buy bullets routinely anyway.
Among other things, the proposal reflects a growing sense of futility among public officials struggling with ways to treat a societal sickness that defies diagnosis, let alone a cure.
Many audience members sported ribbons--purple ones for those in favor of the ordinance, bright blue ones for those against.
Before the meeting, the National Rifle Assn. issued a bulletin urging its members to attend. So did local churches, which urged their congregations to support the measure.
At least 49 people filled out cards indicating that they wished to speak. Applause and catcalls broke out frequently. At one point, authorities had to part the crowd that had spilled into a corridor so that a path would be clear in case of fire.
Under a red, white and black banner that carried the words "Save Our Children" and the outline of a dead child, critic after critic came forward to object to the proposal.
They said that the law could be sidestepped easily by simply crossing city borders, that it would violate the constitutional rights to bear arms and to privacy, and that it would divert attention from more effective solutions to youth violence.
Before the meeting, Oscar A. Palmer, director of alternative education for the Pasadena Unified School District, suggested that the city would be better served by sponsoring a "kid watch" program in which children would be looked after each day by caretakers until their parents came home.
"While I understand the good intentions," said Palmer, a longtime resident, the bullet law is "an ineffective way of preventing these tragedies."
Supporters said the law, while not a solution, could work and is worth a try.
"Tonight it is easier to buy 9-millimeter ammunition than it is to buy a can of spray paint," Pasadena Police Chief Jerry Oliver said at the start of the meeting.
Although Pasadena's is thought to be the first local law of its kind, restricting bullet sales is not new.
Lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have tried to persuade Congress to ban the sale of bullets for cheap handguns called "Saturday night specials." They also have tried to cut ammunition sales by levying heavy taxes, but such proposals have failed in the face of opposition from the powerful gun lobby.
A few cities in the United States have barred the sale of handguns. Others have explored restricting the number of gun dealers by altering zoning laws.
Pasadena's proposal surfaces at a time when gun-related issues appear to be on the minds of an increasing number of local and state lawmakers trying to curb juvenile crime. Last week, a group of state Assembly Democrats vowed to pass several gun-related proposals, including a ban on Saturday night specials.
Also last week, the California Wellness Foundation sponsored a 90-minute video conference on the growing problem of handgun violence against young people.
Entitled "First Aid for What's Killing Our Kids: A Prescription for Prevention," the conference linked scores of national and state leaders, community groups, law enforcement officials and health care experts concerned about the problem.
The escalating crime rate among 10- to 20-year-olds "is a harbinger of things to come," said Jeffrey Butts, senior research associate with the National Center for Juvenile Justice. "It's definitely true that things are coming apart in our urban areas."
Oliver first floated the idea that his city take action after the 1993 Halloween slayings of three boys by gang members who mistook them for rivals. The deaths, the subject of headlines nationwide, also spawned Pasadena's Coalition for a Nonviolent City, a principal backer of the bullet sales ordinance.
Monday's meeting came two weeks after 16-year-old Gilda Martinez was shot to death at a Valentine's Day party, only hours after she had written an essay describing 25 things she wanted to do before she died.
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