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Credibility Gap in Civil Disobedience Over Guns

January 11, 1991|JOSEPH N. BELL

One of the compelling ironies of recent months is playing out in California these days. Owners of assault guns--the "sporting" weapons capable of wiping out a herd of elephants or a platoon of soldiers, both recurring problems in California--are citing the precedent of civil disobedience to justify their refusal to register these guns as required by a law passed in June, 1989.

The deadline for registration was Dec. 31, 1990, and although it will take several weeks for a final tabulation, state officials estimate that only about 18,000 of some 300,000 assault guns in private hands in California will have been registered. That's a lot of civil disobedience.

So what we have here is the National Rifle Assn. in bed with such natural friends as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. Wonderful. That's rather like Hustler Magazine hiding behind the First Amendment skirts of Good Housekeeping, or Charles H. Keating Jr. citing laissez faire capitalism to justify bilking people out of their life savings. The concept may apply, but the stretch is just too long to be credible.

So are some of the things the gun advocates are saying.

For example, T.J. Johnson, head of the Gun Owners of California, was reported to have said: "I'm encouraging all gun owners to stand up for their rights now before they have to fight for their rights later. . . . By having 200 million armed Americans, the government of the United States would never have the thought of becoming tyrannical."

This reasoning apparently assumes that King George III will be exhumed and put back on the throne of England, thereby requiring us to win our freedom again--this time with AK-47s instead of the blunderbuss. I can't imagine a nightmare worse than 200 million Americans running about carrying assault weapons. Or even Saturday night specials.

The logic of this rationale for the unrestricted sale and possession of firearms reminds me of Lyndon B.Johnson telling us with a straight face while he was pouring troops into Vietnam that "if we don't stop them"--meaning, of course, the Communists, who were always referred to, whatever their national origin, as "them"--"in Saigon, we'll have to stop them in Honolulu." Well, 50,000 casualties later, we didn't--and so far, "they" haven't set up shop on Waikiki.

Then we have the NRA, whose field representative for Southern California, Fred Romero, was quoted last week as saying: "The Second Amendment is not there to protect the interests of hunters, sports shooters and casual plinkers, although those are convenient spinoffs. The Second Amendment is there as a balance of power. It is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government."

So take that, J. Danforth Quayle.

Richard Gardiner, a spokesman for the national NRA, carried this reasoning to a slightly higher plane. "According to all the surveys," he told a Times reporter, "nine out of 10 citizens believe they have a constitutional right to own firearms, and they are going to exercise that right. . . . We leave it to them to choose what they want to do. If someone chooses to disobey the law, civil disobedience is a moral decision that each must make for himself."

It would have been interesting to have conducted a survey of NRA members to find out how many of them supported the nonviolent tactics of Martin Luther King to break down laws supporting racial discrimination. Or the civil disobedience acts of the young people who destroyed draft cards or refused military service as a protest against the Vietnam War.

Or even a survey to discover how many citizens believe that the government has not only a right but a responsibility to limit the nature or number of weaponry private citizens can own. Surveys can be stacked to reach whatever conclusions the people running the survey have decided in advance. Most of the halfway objective surveys I've seen on this subject have found a sizable majority of the American people favoring some form of gun control.

In this confusion, it seemed desirable to turn to a cool head--and the coolest head I could think of with a rational perspective from the gun owner's point of view is Randy Garell, who owns Grant Boys gun store in Costa Mesa.

I came across Garell in mid-1989 when he was the only visible gun store owner who banned assault rifles from his stock after a crazed young man used such a weapon in Northern California to mow down a schoolyard full of children.

It cost Garell a bundle in sales, but he hung by his principles, telling me at that time: "I'm certain I did the right thing for me and my business. This was a personal decision, and I make no judgments for anyone else."

So I went back to Garell in the current crisis of mass failure of owners to register the guns Garell banished from his store. And I found no slippage in either principles or honesty.

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