Spurred by the shooting death of his friend John Lennon, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner believes he has come up with a secret weapon to advance the cause of handgun control: Bring in the cops.
Wenner's newly formed Foundation on Violence in America will train police chiefs in five cities this fall in media techniques and send them into the community as lecturers on the dangers of handgun possession.
Wenner, founder of the nation's best-known counterculture magazine, delights in the odd bedfellowship of the project and says it reflects something important about both partners to the arrangement.
"It shows my generation has grown up, settled down. We have families now, we've bought homes and we're interested in self-protection," said Wenner, 36, who started his magazine in 1967 at the age of 21.
"As for the police, it shows that they are a key player in this debate, and they have to be heard from."
The second observation is the product of more than mere intuition. Last year, Wenner hired Washington pollster Peter Hart to do an in-depth survey of attitudes toward gun control, and one key finding was that Americans consider their local police chief the most credible source of information about handguns.
The Hart survey also found that even though gun control inevitably becomes an emotional and sharply polarized issue when it is the subject of a legislative battle, most Americans remain ambivalent.
"You have no more than 10 percent on each side totally committed," Hart said. "The rest of America is subject to cross-pressures. They see arguments for gun control and arguments against it."
The most sensible strategy, says Hart, is for gun control advocates to stay away from legislative fights for a period of time and focus instead on a long-term public education campaign in which they seize the high ground of moderation, reasonableness and common sense.
"The way to cast the debate is to come off as tough on crime, but in favor of reasonable controls that will make everyone feel safer," Hart said.
The police, he says, are the most effective voices to make that case. But will they play?
Like the rest of the country, the law enforcement community has been split on gun control. Some chiefs have been advocates for years; others, inherently conservative, are fierce opponents. By and large, the police have stayed on the sidelines of the debate.
But the growing number of handguns in private possession -- about 50 million, up from 20 million two decades ago -- appears to be pushing the police toward a more activist posture. Police, after all, are one of the groups most directly touched by the increase in gun possession.
"Police worry about what we see as a change in the balance of force," said Ron Smith, a spokesman for the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Smith says it is his "personal opinion" that the IACP, which has supported such measures as waiting periods before guns can be purchased but has not taken any comprehensive position on gun control, might soon be willing to get more involved in the issue.
So far, the IACP has not hooked up with the foundation on its public education campaign. The police group cosponsoring the project with Wenner's foundation is the smaller Police Executive Research Forum, which represents the chiefs of police of the nation's 60 largest cities. Support for handgun control measures has always been strongest there.
But with or without the active involvement of the organizations, more police chiefs appear ready to jump into the fray on their own.
In California, where there is a proposition on the November ballot to limit handgun possession, the police chiefs of San Francisco and San Diego and the sheriff of Los Angeles County are all leading supporters. (Other police leaders, however, are opposing the measure.)
"They're out on the street every day fighting crime," said Charles Orasin, executive vice president of Handgun Control Inc., a Washington-based group pressing for legislative remedies. "Who better to judge the effect of guns on personal safety?"
The key strategy of the police in the public education campaign will be to try to debunk the "myth" of self-protection afforded by guns.
Research cited by the foundation shows, for example, that a homeowner's gun is more likely to be stolen and used in the commission of a crime or to be the cause of a household accident than to be used by its owner for self-protection.
As Wenner tries to get this message out, he will not be relying on the police alone. He has assembled a blue-ribbon board of directors for his foundation that includes leaders of the entertainment industry, establishment lawyers, university presidents and corporate executives.
Indeed, the most ironic partnership to come of the foundation may not even be between the hippies and pigs of yore, but between Rolling Stone and Readers Digest, two publications that even now do not normally grace the same coffee table.
Wenner met Readers Digest editor-in-chief Edward T. Thompson at a seminar last year and began selling him on the project. Thompson has since become one of the most active board members. Over the years, Readers Digest, a bulwark of conservatism, has advocated moderate gun control.
"On the face of it, it's kind of absurd -- Rolling Stone and Readers Digest in on the same project," mused Thompson. "But believe me, we've used it as a hook to intrigue people into doing some listening."