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A Silent Majority of California Gun Owners Is Caught in the Cross-Fire of Extremists. Maybe It's Time to Hear From Those Who Are

November 18, 2001|STEVE BERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Yolo County farmer Fritz Durst has been around guns all of his life. He takes his three preteen children out shooting. He owns two shotguns and five rifles, and he keeps one rifle in his pickup truck loaded and ready when he's on his farm in north-central California. Part of the off-the-grid camo crowd? Some kind of post-Sept. 11 militiaman? No way. The 42-year-old Durst has never owned a handgun; even a child with a squirt gun makes him squeamish. His firearms are long guns meant for killing farm varmints and hunting game. You'll never see him marching lock-step with the gun fanatics. Durst thinks the National Rifle Assn. can be extremist and believes many gun laws are good.

The UC Davis graduate and fifth-generation farmer is among the majority of gun owners in California who keep firearms for practical reasons. State and national surveys show that the overwhelming majority of gun owners are, like Durst, supporting some of the most controversial gun-control laws. They probably buy most of the 350,000 firearms sold every year in California.

To them, a gun is a machine, not a political issue. Their take on gun laws seldom carries the ideological heat that inflames the dialogue in Sacramento and Washington. If they think the law will reduce gun deaths and injuries, they will support it; if not, they won't.

Their voices seldom rise above the din from gun and anti-gun zealots. Armed but silent, these moderates are no match for media-savvy gun groups that spit sound bites faster than an AK-47 fires bullets. They don't care to be. They are either focused on their workaday worlds, or hesitate to speak out because they feel the image of all gun owners has been tarnished by the misfits who shoot up schools and the extremists who get quoted in the media.

"Yeah, anyone who owns a gun must be some yahoo who shoots first and asks questions later," says a sardonic Tim Henderson, a computer software engineer who recently completed a safety class at American Shooting Center in San Diego in preparation for buying a firearm. Although Henderson and others like him are conspicuously absent from a debate that is all about them and their rights, they are not hard to find. They are everyday citizens who also happen to own guns: a trucker from Madera pulled curbside for the night in an industrial area of Los Angeles; a Compton liquor store owner suspicious of a customer lingering a bit too long at closing time; a retiree living where gunfire is just another street noise; an affluent Asian living in a palatial home overlooking Sunset Boulevard who is worried about racism; a sheep rancher protecting his herd from coyotes; a mother with small children in Long Beach.

One out of every three adults owns firearms in California, a 1999 Los Angeles Times survey found. About 75% are white and 60% are male. Republicans are no more likely than Democrats to be armed. Nearly half have no more than a high school education.

As a group, gun buyers can be as sensitive and as irrational as Wall Street. Sales spiked in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the Y2K hysteria in late 1999 and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Most of those featured on the following pages hold political views ranging from libertarian to liberal. Most own two or more guns. A few have permits to carry a weapon wherever they go. Many grew up with weapons around the house. Others had never touched a gun until violence touched them. Self-defense is the single most common reason they cite for owning a gun. (The Times poll found that one of every three owners is armed as a means of protection.)

As a potential force in the gun-control debate, their views would please and dismay both sides. The 1999 Times poll showed that most Californians--gun owners and non-owners alike--think government should check the criminal background of buyers, including those at gun shows. Most also favor banning assault weapons. On the other hand, gun owners are more tolerant of the NRA than people who are not armed, and are more likely to oppose handgun bans. An Ohio State University study released earlier this year found that the less someone trusts the federal government, the more likely they are to take up arms. That mistrust is most extreme among gun owners, who see themselves and their weapons as the last line of defense against government tyranny.

But most gun owners eschew such radicalism. Even in rural areas such as Yolo County, where most people grew up around firearms and know a lot about them, you will not see them doting on their weapons. They can talk about trajectory, and they explain why your chances of nailing a coyote at 250 yards are better when you use a .243-caliber rifle with a 110-grain bullet instead of a .223 with a 55-grain slug. But chances are, they also can tell you what to do if a header bearing in a combine goes bad and you are racing the clock to harvest a wheat field.

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