Mary Leigh Blek's phone keeps ringing, her fax machine is humming, and the calendar on her wall looks full, again. It's another busy week at the headquarters of Orange County Citizens for the Prevention of Gun Violence, and that alone tells the story of what may be a revolution spreading across the Golden State.
This wealthy enclave of old ranches and new gated homes has been such a conservative Republican stronghold in Southern California that the notion of a grass-roots group rising up to crusade for gun control once would have been laughable. When Blek, a devout Republican, launched her campaign four years ago, she felt lucky to have a few dozen members.
Now she has more than 800. "Even here, the mind-set about guns is changing," Blek said. "People aren't in denial as much anymore. They think this is a pervasive problem, they are appalled by it, and they want government to do something."
California's elected leaders are hearing that cry. In recent months, one law after another designed to crack down on guns has rolled out of the statehouse in Sacramento, often over the objections of powerful interest groups such as the National Rifle Association. And many state lawmakers say they are just getting started, because polls show that California's giant electorate -- which presidential candidates already are courting intensely -- is more preoccupied than ever with the issue.
The state has just approved the nation's toughest ban on assault weapons. It is outlawing the sale, manufacture or import of cheap handguns known as "Saturday night specials," which are frequently used in violent crimes. Handgun purchases in California will now be limited to one per person a month, and all of the weapons will be required to have new safety devices such as trigger locks. Tighter regulations are also being imposed on gun retailing shows.
Together, the package of legislation signed by Gov. Gray Davis (D) is the most comprehensive stand that any state has taken on gun control, and it is far more aggressive than measures Congress has been willing to approve.
"This year," Blek said, "it's as if the dam just broke on this issue."
Sensing growing national outrage over gun violence, many other states also are vowing to take stronger steps to limit the proliferation of weapons. Just this week, Maryland's attorney general proposed much stricter gun regulations, and several large cities across the country are suing gun manufacturers.
In the coming months in California, just as the state gears up for its influential presidential primary, legislators will begin debating whether to get even tougher on guns -- even though the governor has urged them to slow down. Among the proposals: requiring more elaborate licensing and registration of weapons before purchases and regular renewals afterward.
The new momentum for gun control is in large part the result of the resounding success that Democrats across California had at the polls last year, seizing the governor's mansion and both houses of the legislature for the first time in 40 years. But there is more to the story. Even before the Democratic sweep, 45 cities in California had passed the same ban on cheap handguns that is now becoming state law.
Some Republican legislators here have become so worried about voter backlash that they are abstaining from key gun control votes. Others facing reelection or representing districts that neither political party has a firm grip on are reversing their positions on some gun measures altogether. Longtime allies of the gun lobby are blinking, too.
Last month, a Democratic state senator running in a special congressional election in San Bernardino to replace the late Rep. George E. Brown Jr. (D) played down his long-standing political ties to the NRA and cast himself as a new convert to some forms of gun control. Joe Baca even sent voters a mailing featuring a photo of him standing next to Davis when the governor signed a gun control bill this summer. He finished first in the race.
"People are on fire about this," said Frank Brunotts, president of Contra Costa Ceasefire, another grass-roots gun control group blossoming in an unlikely place, the mostly blue-collar and conservative towns of Contra Costa County east of the San Francisco Bay. "The mass shootings around the country have really angered the soccer moms. They're becoming much more focused on this problem."
Luis Tolley, western regional director of Handgun Control Inc., said that with rural areas around the state fast becoming suburbs, and with violent crime declining, the mythical importance of gun rights also is diminishing.
"All the swing voting districts are starting to go our way," he said.
Hardly a week passes in California without another sign of how fierce the battle for gun control is getting. In Los Angeles County, officials recently banned gun merchants from staging their weekend shows on public property, but a court has since overturned the ban. Other counties are passing or proposing similar steps and taking others, such as banning gun dealers from residential neighborhoods. A few of the many gun manufacturers in the industry's "Ring of Fire" around Los Angeles also have begun curtailing production or closing shop because of the state's looming ban on cheap handguns and the threat of new municipal lawsuits.
In polls, California voters are showing significant new confidence in the effectiveness of tougher gun regulations. Statewide, nearly two-thirds of them say they support stronger laws and believe they will reduce violence. The figure has been rising for the past five years, to the point now that more than 40 percent of Republican voters across the state say they support that view.
Even in the conservative bastion of Orange County, which has the highest percentage of Republican voters in the state, the news is almost the same. A recent poll by the Orange County Register showed that 55 percent of voters there, including nearly half of the Republicans questioned, favored stronger regulations on guns. Nearly 70 percent overall supported banning "Saturday night specials" and limiting handgun purchases to one a month.
"The public really seems to be searching around for solutions to this issue and is more willing than ever to try out new measures," said Mark DiCamillo, director of the independent Field Poll in California.
Blek says she hears that refrain constantly these days as she roams the county, preaching her cause to any civic group, church or school willing to listen. Her husband, Charles, a member of Orange County's premier Republican group, the Lincoln Club, also tours with the same message every week.
For them, the subject is as personal as it is political: Five years ago, an assailant armed with a cheap handgun shot and killed their 21-year-old son, Matthew, during a robbery. Still, the couple do not take easily to activism. Like many others in their group, they are middle-aged and prosperous. She has been a nurse and stay-at-home mom; he is a lawyer. But their dismay with their party's reluctance to get tougher on guns is unmistakable.
Mary Leigh Blek even summoned the nerve to denounce the NRA and the elected officials in its corner at a large public rally earlier this year. "We love our children more than they love their damn guns," she told a cheering crowd.
She still sounds a bit sheepish about her angry speech that day. "I really wish I had said `darn,' " she says. "My mother would have been so upset to hear me talk like that. But I just couldn't help myself."
Other new members of the grass-roots group describe similar surprise at their own political awakening. One of them is Curt Webster, a father of six who lives in the Orange County community of Seal Beach. He remembers growing up hearing his father say, "The West wasn't won with a registered gun." And until this spring, no issue in politics had inspired him to action.
"I was driving on the freeway when I heard about the shootings at Columbine on the radio," Webster said, referring to the massacre at a suburban high school in Colorado. "Something just snapped, and I said, `Enough.' "
The next day, he called his pastor, who referred him to Blek's group. He signed up and soon began making presentations on its behalf at community meetings in Orange County. "I don't know if the politicians have really noticed it yet," he said, "but at the grass-roots level, gun control has stopped being a party-line issue for many people."
Webster knows the fight has only just begun, though. And around the state, gun control advocates celebrating California's new laws still see other trends that they call distressing.
In Orange County, most legislators ignored the latest polls and voted against the new bans on assault weapons and cheap handguns. Gun sales in California are rising, too. In the first six months of this year, as it became apparent that the state was on the verge of passing tighter restrictions on guns, weapons purchases increased by more than 30 percent. The NRA also is making its case as aggressively as ever. It is deeply involved in local political races. Not long ago, the Bleks even received mail from the group's headquarters in Virginia urging them to support a candidate it favored for county sheriff.
Steve Helsley, the top NRA lobbyist in Sacramento, said that he thinks polls are exaggerating the public's ire over guns. "Whenever I speak to civic groups on this subject, I find that what they want is already state law," he said. "Gun control is polling well only because people don't know the law."
Helsley also said that once the public sees how costly, bureaucratic and ineffective the new gun control laws in California are, politicians who support them are going to pay a steep price. "This whole package," he said, "is absolute smoke and mirrors."
The NRA contends that even Davis senses the political risk of pushing the issue too much. Earlier this month, the governor urged lawmakers to slow down for a year and refrain from passing more gun control legislation. He said that he wants to give law enforcement agencies time to adjust to the many regulations just passed and the state a chance to assess how well they work.
"We have to make sure these new laws are absorbed by the system," said Gary South, a political adviser to Davis. "The public wants more than grandstanding on this issue. It wants real, measurable effects on public safety."
Disappointed by his strategy, the same gun control advocates who have been praising Davis are now vowing to pressure him to change his mind. The NRA is applauding his new caution, they say, because it knows that taking a break on the issue could hurt a movement that seems to be getting stronger every day.
In Orange County, for example, Blek's group has just become affiliated with a new and well-organized national grass-roots alliance called the Bell Campaign. It is raising millions of dollars to promote the need for tougher gun control.
And even inside the staunchly conservative Lincoln Club, Charles Blek says that the polite sermons he keeps giving to his old friends and fellow Republicans about gun regulations are winning some of them over, quietly.
"I've had more than a few of them pull me aside and whisper that what I'm saying sounds reasonable," he said. "But old habits are hard to break. We certainly still have a long way to go. We may not be that large in number here quite yet, but we're getting mightier all the time."
A recent Field Poll of California voters showed greater support for gun control than gun rights.
Q: "Which is more important -- to protect the right of Americans to own guns, or to impose greater control on gun ownership?"
Right to own guns 30%
Control gun ownership 64%
No opinion: 6%
Right to own guns 16%
Control gun ownership 79%
No opinion: 5%
Right to own guns 49%
Control gun ownership 45%
No opinion: 6%
NOTE: The results in this report are based on a telephone survey conducted Aug. 16-22, 1999, among a representative statewide sample of 514 California adults. The sampling error for the full group is plus or minus 4.5 percentage points.
This year California passed several laws restricting guns.
Assault weapons: Banned high-capacity magazines and "copycat" assault weapons designed to skirt restrictions on certain firearms.
Multiple purchases: Limited the number of handguns an individual can purchase to one a month.
Gun shows: Required certification of gun show promoters and prohibited minors from attending gun shows unless accompanied by an adult.
Gun locks: Required all guns sold, transferred or manufactured in California to be equipped with a trigger lock or other safety device.
Saturday night specials: Restricted manufacture, importation and sale of cheap guns that don't meet basic safety standards.
About This Series
This is another in a series of occasional articles that will look at California, its people and economy, and the key role the state will play in the 2000 election.