If you wonder about the political firepower of the gun lobby, you need only to come here to see that it is awesome.
Proposition 15, a ballot initiative to freeze California's handgun arsenal to its present level of 5 million weapons, is in deep trouble -- despite the fact that here, as elsewhere, a vast majority of citizens favors some domestic disarmament.
The National Rifle Association, the firearms manufacturers and local gun owners have mobilized an army, raised and spent a war chest of $5 million, printed and passed out tons of literature and mounted a campaign that presents Prop 15 as a threat to the American way of life.
According to its propaganda, which has much fine print readable only to gunners with 20-20 vision, registration and limitation of handguns will make the streets safe for criminals and leave decent homeowners defenseless.
When Prop 15 went on the ballot last June, it had a 2-to-1 edge. But under the barrage laid down by a coalition called Citizens Against the Gun Initiative (CAGI) it has steadily retreated.
The latest Field poll shows it losing by 8 points.
Understandably, the gun lobby saw the victory of the California initiative as a shot through the heart.
If the nation's largest state were to be knocked over by gun-control advocates, the rest of the country could also be forced to lay down its concealable arms.
Their campaign generates as much passion as the referendum on Gov. Jerry Brown, which is how his nip-and-tuck contest for the Senate with Pete Wilson is seen here. For a firebase, they have the 900 gun shops in the state, each of which has been converted into a little headquarters selling "Vote No on 15" bumper stickers and caps, and alarming customers to their peril.
The more than 1,000 hunting, sports and gun clubs provide more funds and volunteers. Scratch a gunner and find a zealot here.
At the CAGI headquarters in San Diego -- a particularly pro-gun area because of the prevalence of service people and retired military -- a steady stream of volunteers, many still wearing their work uniforms, comes in to man the phone bank, one of 11 that operate around the state. The local bar association opposes 15 because of its mandatory jail sentence for illegal possession. One of the scary arguments against 15 is that it means that a person who grabs the gun of an intruder could end up in prison.
The anti-gunners, who also have national help, call themselves the Californians against Street Crime. They feel besieged. They have a handful of volunteers, one-fourth the money, only seven of the state's 58 sheriffs and only three of its 95 police chiefs to throw into the unequal battle. The pro-gunners say that with police diverted to re-registering decent citizens, criminals would have a field day.
The principal speaker for the "Yes" camp is Dorothea Morefield, the spunky wife of Iranian hostage Richard Morefield. Her 19- year-old son Rick was killed in an Annandale Roy Rogers restaurant in 1976. The gunners say it was a failure of the judiciary, because the handgun murderer had already been charged with armed robbery.
One anti-gun commercial, which shows a young woman sobbing over the handgun death of her father, particularly riles the friends of handguns.
"The emotionalism is disgusting," says gray-haired Doris McKinney, CAGI's office manager.
Considering the intensity, and the fact that every gun-nut in the state has been flushed out -- the really fervent tend to be Republican -- you might think that the initiative could determine the outcome of the tight statewide races. All say it is not necessarily so. Gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, a Democrat for 15, thinks California's other disarmament issue, the nuclear freeze, could turn out numbers of neutralizing force. His rival, George Deukmijan, who is "No on 15," says Californians separate ballot initiatives from candidates.
A few random encounters bear this out. For instance, 22-year-old Frank Benton, a Republican and a true fanatic who drives the "No" van hundreds of miles daily, dropping off literature and firing up troops, will vote for Brown despite Brown's "Yes on 15."
Benton is an environmentalist and likes Brown on the issue. Besides, he says Brown changed to a "Yes on 15" only because 600,000 Californians asked for it.
"When we show him how we feel next Tuesday, he will change back," says Benton.
In the local Custom Gun Shop, where Frank Marino, the pleasant proprietor, wears a Saturday night special on his hip, a San Diego policeman is browsing. He and his wife are both pro-gun, being target-shooters, but he may be for Brown because he is "not sure of Wilson."
One thing is dead sure. Power comes out of a gun barrel here.