We Americans west of the Sierra Nevada let the rest of the country in on a small, depressing bit of truth Nov. 2, something many of us have suspected but few wished to admit.
We don't like to see thousands of people killed each year by handguns. We tell pollsters we favor gun control. But any proposed law tough enough to reduce the carnage reminds most of us of the strange noises out on the street last night. How could we protect ourselves if someone broke through that old lock on the back door?
On Election Day, nearly 4.7 million people, 62.7 percent of all those voting, rejected an initiative putting a ceiling on the number of handguns in California and requiring their registration. The shock of that lopsided defeat was only made worse by years of national polls indicating 60 to 70 percent majorities in favor of gun control. To accept the ugly truth was too disheartening. Explanations for the California vote whipped quickly off the printing presses, in an effort to hide the monster under an avalanche of paper until it went away.
Westerners, at least those of us in the suburbs, the mountains, deserts and rural valleys, do still taste a bit of the lingering, sickly fear of the frontier, when normal home life really was risky without a gun. Polls show a higher percentage of gun owners out here. It is also true that the National Rifle Association and several gun manufacturers spent an enormous amount of money -- in the range of $6 million -- to defeat the Proposition 15 gun control measure.
But a close look at the polls before the election, and some of the remarkable events of Nov. 2 itself, reveal a stubborn unwillingness among most of us to give up an old, familiar option -- an unwillingness that extends far east of the Sierras.
Polls created the reigning impression of a nation eager for gun control, but pollsters try to tap attitude, not propose reasonably tough, potentially effective laws like the California handgun ceiling. The Gallup Poll regularly asks if people "favor or oppose the registration of handguns," an innocuous proposal that won 66 percent support in a 1982 survey. The Washington Post-ABC News poll asked shortly after the attempted assassination of President Reagan, "Do you favor or oppose stronger legislation controlling the distribution of handguns?" Again, 65 percent were in favor.
Alec Gallup, vice chairman of the Gallup organization, notes that his poll also asks if there should be a law "which would forbid the possession of handguns except by police or other authorized persons." It is a suggestion that might actually save some lives. San Francisco, where a majority voted for Proposition 15, has tried to impose such a ban but has been stymied in court. But a representative sample of Americans surveyed by Gallup opposed a ban of this type -- 54 to 41 percent -- in April of this year.
This is, to Santa Ana pollster Gary Lawrence who worked for the anti-Proposition 15 forces, the "fishing license syndrome." His polls have shown for years that Americans say yes when asked if guns should be registered, and say no when asked if the police should be able to say they can't have a gun. In the aftermath of Nov. 2, even gun control advocates noted that Proposition 15 would have had little immediate impact on people's individual lives, except those people who already owned guns. This made an enormous difference at the ballot box.
California pollster Mervin Field saw an odd jump in the numbers on a few lines of his computer printouts almost immediately. In his pre-election sample of likely voters, 38 percent said they were gun owners. In his exit poll of people who actually voted, this group had increased to 48 percent of the total. People who did not ordinarily bother with politics and politicians were coming out in droves to save their unrestricted right to bear arms, aided by a well-organized NRA campaign that made sure every one of them knew what was on the ballot.
Gallup argues that if Americans were forced to vote -- if they were fined for not voting, as in Australia -- gun control measures would win. But the passions are on the side of the gun-owning minority, who vote out of proportion to their numbers. Gallup found 18 percent of a national sample, in deciding how to vote, would give greatest weight to a candidate's stand on gun control -- and of that group twice as many opposed gun control as favored it.
If the registration provisions of the California initiative had been voted on separately, Field concludes, it might have passed, but the ceiling provision -- banning further imports and requiring state residents to buy guns only from other Californians -- created a fear that a homeowner who might want a gun some day could not get one. That turned enough suburbanites against it. In California's northern forest counties, the issue was never in doubt. Voter turnout in Mariposa, Trinity and Modoc counties was 10 percentage points above the state average, and the vote against Proposition 15 there ranged from 80 to 90 percent.
San Jose police chief Joseph McNamara, a gun control supporter who debated all over the state in favor of Proposition 15, says the defeat here is likely to chill gun control efforts throughout the country. Other leaders of the Yes on 15 campaign are more optimistic, but all they can think of to do now is seek out foundation money for a study, often the last refuge of a mortally wounded idea.