It will be high noon on guns next November in California, where citizens often write their own laws.
The nation's largest state is likely to have on its ballot the boldest anti-handgun initiative yet attempted. It would require all handgun owners to register their weapons before Nov. 2, 1983. As of April 30, 1983, there would be a freeze on the purchase of unregistered handguns.
The outraged gun lobby held an emergency meeting at the Los Angeles airport in late November. Members of 18 state gun clubs and representatives of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms and its big brother, the National Rifle Association, which claims 2 million members and an enormous war chest, were in attendance.
Alan Gottlieb, chairman of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, proposed that the gun fans launch a counteroffensive to add to the California Constitution the language of the Second Amendment to the national Constitution: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."
The NRA currently favors merely an "education" campaign.
Proponents of the big handgun freeze have been told by allies and friends that they have gone too far--that while 80 percent of Americans favor handgun registration, and have for the last 50 years--they are opposed to an outright ban on sales.
The chairman of Handgun Control Inc., Nelson T. (Pete) Shields, flew to California this week to importune the managers of the gun-control initiative to retreat from their "extreme" position and settle for mere registration of the some 4 million handguns in circulation in California.
His argument: A defeat could set back the cause of handgun control.
But John Phillips, a Los Angeles lawyer who is executive director of the Committee Against Street Crime and Concealed Weapons, says that gun-control advocates are losing ground every day anyway.
For instance, the modest 1968 handgun-control bill is under attack in Congress. A bill sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho) and Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D-Mo.) would shoot holes in its record-keeping requirements.
And in response to an ordinance against handgun sales and possession voted by the citizens of Morton Grove, Ill., Sen. Steve Symms (R-Idaho), who always rides shotgun for the gun lobby, has announced plans to draft legislation that would deny certain federal funds to localities that have the temerity to eliminate traffic in firearms.
The NRA is contributing to the financing of an appeal to a federal court ruling that upheld the Morton Grove ordinance.
The gun lobby is always strident, but lately there has been a new edge to its propaganda. Recently, the NRA took out full-page newspaper ads to suggest that if Poland didn't have tough gun laws, its citizens might have averted the martial law currently being visited upon them.
" . . . As long as the Second Amendment is not infringed, what is happening in Poland can never happen in these United States" is the closing line of this astonishing call to arms.
And in Point Blank, the newsletter of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, the editor urged churchgoing readers to withhold contributions to "gun-snatching clergymen." Instead, readers were told to put a note in the collection plate "stating you're not giving any more until they renounce the antigun positions from the pulpit." Washington's Archbishop James A. Hickey was singled out for special mention because he is on record for the "elimination of handguns from society," according to the newsletter.
So far, no nasty notes have been found in the collection plates.
There is no doubt among pollsters that an outright ban on handguns is regarded as a suicidal position.
But Phillips says gun-control advocates have little to lose, and the boldness of the initiative--of which Jimmy Carter's ambassador for refugee affairs, Vincent Palmieri, is chairman--will attract attention and contributions. A California victory will "break the back of the gun lobby, which has intimidated most of our public officials," says Phillips.
Gottlieb says the gun-control forces will be unable to get the 346,119 signatures required to get on the ballot, although others dispute him on this point. The petition drive has not begun.
John Acquilino of the NRA says the "totally wrong-headed" effort would "do nothing to stop crime."
One set of figures put out by proponents of the initiative, however, makes a compelling argument to the contrary: In 1979, handguns killed 48 people in Japan, eight in Britain, 34 in Switzerland, 52 in Canada, 58 in Israel, 21 in Sweden, 42 in West Germany and 10,728 in the United States.
Californians, who don't mind being thought far-out, might think, in light of those figures, that it would not be far-out to ban handgun sales.