Disarming Tactics

Why is a group of well-heeled lawyers helping empower local communities to pass stricter gun control ordinances? Take a look behind-the-scenes of the unusual grass roots organizing project that's been successfully outwitting the California gun lobby.

| Mon Mar. 3, 1997 4:00 AM EST

On July 1, 1993, a gray-haired, portly man dressed in a suit quietly entered a San Francisco high-rise towing a lawyer's dolly. Its cargo was a bag containing two TEC-DC9 pistols, a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun and a few hundred rounds of ammunition. When he reached the 34th floor, he opened fire, bringing death and pandemonium to the law firm of Pettit & Martin, as well as two more offices, before killing himself 15 minutes later.

In response to the tragedy, John Heisse and Chuck Erlich, both former partners at the now-defunct Pettit & Martin, formed the Legal Community Against Violence (LCAV), a non-profit gun control organization with a membership of nearly 500 attorneys deftly exercising their legal muscle to help local communities bypass state law to pass their own stricter gun control ordinances. With the LCAV's guidance, surburban towns and large cities all across California -- from Oakland to Los Angeles -- have been swiftly passing bans on the sale of inexpensive handguns -- commonly known as "Saturday Night Specials" or "junk guns."

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The murder of eight people and maiming of six others in an ostensibly safe office building resonated with attorneys as an extreme manifestation of American discontent with the legal profession. Once the initial shock subsided, Heisse and Erlich consulted with Richard Aborn, the president of Handgun Control Inc. "We spoke with Richard about what we could do as lawyers to help end gun violence and he agreed that we did have a unique role to play," says Heisse.

The LCAV mobilized lawyers to fight for the passage of the Brady Bill and the national assault weapons ban, and helped bring a case against Navegar Inc., the manufacturer of the TEC-DC9 semiautomatic weapons used in the July 1, 1993 tragedy, which would make it possible for the survivors and relatives to sue for damages. But it wasn't until the LCAV's executive director, Barrie Becker, took stock of all of the calls coming in from city attorneys and city council members from around the state that she realized what the group's defining direction would be. "They wanted to know how they could pass tighter gun control ordinances because they felt they weren't getting any support from the state in addressing gun violence." says Becker. "There was a lot of frustration and confusion."

In the past, many local politicians feared that kicking "kitchen table" firearms dealers out of neighborhoods or holding them to strict safety standards would result in political disaster. "The common wisdom was that they didn't have the power to regulate guns," explains Eric Gorovitz, volunteer attorney for the LCAV.

In order to help cities negotiate this relatively uncharted area of the law, Becker put together a manual, "Addressing Gun Violence Through Local Ordinances," which describes ordinances that can regulate guns, ammunition and firearms dealers in California and then maps out the potential legal challenges to these laws. Since January 1996, the LCAV has sent out close to 2,500 manuals to police chiefs, mayors, and city attorneys across the state, and 28 cities -- including Los Angeles, San Jose, Oakland, and San Francisco -- and three counties have passed bans on the sales of Saturday Night Specials.

The LCAV used an innovative consumer protection angle to win over many supporters. They argued that Saturday Night Specials are "unsafe and unreliable for purposes of self-protection," according to Juliet Leftwich, coordinator of the Local Ordinance Project. Junk guns, typically sold for under $100, short-barreled and low caliber (.22, .25, or .380), are so cheaply made that they often backfire, endangering the user. "Teddy bears have to go through testing -- but not guns," says Leftwich.

Because passing these ordinances and keeping them intact requires extensive legal support, the LCAV has conducted seminars throughout the state, recruiting like-minded lawyers willing to provide pro bono legal support if a city's ordinance is challenged. "We've made a commitment to the cities," says Heisse. "We will play whatever role they want us to play. We don't have to be front and center." So far, Becker estimates the pro bono aid to cities passing the Saturday Night Special ordinance is worth around $250,000.

The Saturday Night Special ban met with its first major legal challenge in January 1996: a lawsuit filed by the California Rifle and Pistol Association (CRPA) and the National Rifle Association (NRA) in West Hollywood claiming that state regulation of guns preempts local laws. The victory was won -- with help from the LCAV, who lent some legal consultation to West Hollywood's deputy city attorney Sayre Weaver -- in November 1996 when Judge David Horowitz dismissed the lawsuit.

While the ruling was a green light for some politicians that were wary about passing the ordinance, it was also a wake-up call to Chuck Michel, the attorney representing both the CRPA and NRA, as well as to other NRA members in the Southern California area, who were caught off guard when the ruling didn't go their way. "After the West Hollywood ruling, the gun lobby came out of the woodwork," says Susan Shaw of Women Against Gun Violence in Los Angeles.

The pro-gun faction got organized and began doggedly attending city council meetings in a number of cities that were considering the ordinance -- including West Covina, Sierra Madre and Long Beach. In December 1996 Michel, who is appealing the ruling, sent out a letter to these undecided cities warning them that there will be other lawsuits: "The legal challenges to this ordinance are far from exhausted... We are appealing [Horowitz's] superficial and somewhat predicable [sic] decision, and expect to prevail."

Whether these ordinances, even if they stay intact, will have a concrete effect on crime and public safety still remains to be seen, since most of the ordinances only went into effect on January 1, 1997. But when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms ranked the top ten most frequently traced models of guns in 1994, seven of them were Saturday Night Specials. And that's plenty of incentive for the LCAV to continue employing innovative methods -- and capitalizing on their connections -- to help show the state and Washington that communities are taking the lead in making their cities safe again.

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