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