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AL MARTINEZ

Bang, You're Alive

March 11, 1995|AL MARTINEZ

I'm back from a bout with the flu in time to say goodby to the little old lady from Pasadena.

She was the symbol for many years of a city known mostly for a parade and a usually mediocre football game, but now all that has changed.

By passing an ordinance restricting the sale of handgun ammunition, Pasadena has moved into the forefront of the war on urban violence.

Other cities, realizing how devilishly clever Pasadena's effort was, are already talking about drafting their own legislation to similarly regulate the purchase of ammunition in their municipalities.

The rationale is that, without ammo, guns will be useless, and those inclined to shoot people on the streets will be without facility to express their aberrational version of Manhood.

They'll be left with no other alternative than to run around pointing their index fingers and shouting, "Bang! You're dead," which ought to have no appreciable impact on the national death rate.

By going after ammunition, Pasadena's effort doesn't attempt a clash with gun owners. It is a way of tiptoeing past the National Rifle Assn., whose members lock and load whenever their peculiar obsessions seem imperiled.

Unfortunately, however, these people sleep with one finger on the trigger, their alarms set and their pit bulls loose in the house, so it is only fair to assume they will awaken at some point and challenge the ordinance. A gunfight at the old corral is possible.

*

It surprised me that Pasadena, a city of musty tradition and fussy historians, would lead us in any kind of effort to end violence on the streets. Outrage and indignation were not elements of their tradition . . . until a terrible triple murder transformed grief into a battle cry.

Three young boys were killed and three others wounded in a random shooting as they walked home from trick-or-treating on Halloween night, 1993. Police Chief Jerry Oliver remembers the scene with the clarity of a nightmare:

"I saw candy strewn everywhere and red lights and medical people. I saw kids in the street ripped apart and bleeding in the gutter. I saw family members standing there, the reflection of red lights on their faces, waiting to find out whether it was a son or relative. It made right-thinking folks say we've had enough."

Rick Cole, who was mayor at the time of the killings, took me to the place on North Wilson Avenue where the shootings occurred. He and Chief Oliver were among those who led in passage of the ammunition ordinance.

It was a quiet street on an overcast day, a street that seemed still in mourning for the young lives lost there. Candle wax was visible on the sidewalk where memorials were placed to remember the lost kids. For weeks, a sign at the killing place said, "Pray for Pasadena, There Is Still Hope."

That quest for hope was translated into an effort to determine what kind of law the city could pass that would stand up in court. The ammunition ordinance was the result.

"We had already cracked down on graffiti by locking up spray-paint cans," Cole said, looking down at the place where the three boys died. "It shouldn't be easier to buy bullets than to buy paint cans."

*

"I'm tired of people still fighting the Revolutionary War setting urban policy," Chief Oliver said in obvious reference to the NRA. "We've got mayhem on our streets, and we're doing the best we can to prevent it."

"We're not trying to overthrow the Constitution," Cole said. "We're just trying to save the children."

They spoke of their ordinance not as an answer to violence on the streets, but as a beginning. "We've been frozen in indecision because we're afraid of people who cry out that we're taking away their rights," the chief said. "It's about time we show the courage to handle our own destiny."

He added: "I believe there are people out there who could develop an ordinance more refined and sophisticated than ours, but we'll never get there if someone doesn't take the first step. What we're doing is right."

It seems odd that we have to sneak up on a problem that kills 15 children in the United States every day. Chief Oliver is correct in his conclusion that the right to bear arms was never intended to apply to today's world. We've got an organized militia now. We don't need Minutemen anymore.

Restricting the sale of ammunition isn't going to solve the problem of gunfire on the streets, but if it prevents the sale of one bullet, that could be the bullet that ends a life. One is all it takes.

So say hello to Pasadena, a new force in the fight against urban violence. And say goodby to the little old lady in tennis shoes.

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