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January 11-17, 2006

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Photograph by Felipe Buitrago
A Range of Gun Supporters: Local attorney Don Kilmer is leading a Silicon Valley effort to ensure gun-ownership rights statewide; his group claims membership from across the political spectrum.

Barreling Ahead

Gun politics make for strange bedfellows in Silicon Valley, where one group is using San Francisco's ownership ban as a rallying cry for civil rights

By Vrinda Normand

Anyone who thought San Francisco had maxed out on controversy by opening City Hall to same-sex marriages found they had another thing coming in the last election. By April 1, if a voter-approved measure survives court challenges, city residents will have to turn in their handguns to local authorities, whether or not the weapons were purchased legally.

The contentious gun ban passed in November, after a record number of homicides shook the streets in 2005. The municipal law was supposed to go into effect Jan. 1, but legal action by the National Rifle Association has stalled it for a few months.

Gun-control advocates, of course, are hailing this as a landmark victory. But ironically, San Francisco's legislative leap may be the boost gun rights groups have been waiting for.

Certainly the timing couldn't be better for a San Jose organization called the Golden State Second Amendment Council (GS2AC) that has been pushing to add guaranteed gun rights to the state constitution since 2000. While the second amendment of the United States Constitution grants the "right to bear arms" (the actual definition of this guarantee, of course, is still the subject of endless debate), California law only mentions the right to "self-defense."

"I guess you're supposed to protect your life with your bare hands or something," grumbles Don Kilmer, a local—and liberal—attorney who believes San Francisco had the right intention in promoting same-sex marriages but has gone off-track with gun control. Kilmer is leading the GS2AC effort to get an initiative on the state ballot this November.

His group's proposal would guarantee law-abiding Californians the right to own guns, despite the regulatory actions of local governments. The amendment would not cover criminals, minors or the mentally incompetent.

A legislative analyst from attorney general Bill Lockyer's office says the measure's fiscal impact would be minimal because it "establishes constitutional guidelines which apparently are not in conflict with existing state laws and the systems for their implementation."

Kilmer needs at least 600,000 petition signatures to qualify for the ballot, and the closest he's come to this was 300,000 six years ago when "Millennium freaks" (as he calls them) became more concerned about owning firearms in the now-hilarious epidemic of Y2K arm-waving back in 1999. But he thinks the San Francisco anti-gun measure might be the rallying point his group needs to finally make it official.

The group recently launched a website ( where petition forms can be downloaded for lobbying at statewide gun shows and shooting events. Volunteers from 23 counties have come forward to gather signatures.

"This is not a one-shot effort," Kilmer says. "Now we're starting to gather momentum."

Silicon Valley's Gun Issues

The GS2AC sprang from the Silicon Valley NRA Members Council—you may remember them as the contingent that fought Santa Clara County's attempt to ban gun shows at the fairgrounds in 1996.

The restriction was eventually shot down in court as a violation of commercial free speech.

Local NRA members filed another lawsuit in 1999 when supervisor Blanca Alvarado, a staunch supporter of gun control, failed to give them equal time to speak at a community meeting. The county settled the case by changing its public comment policy and paying the NRA's legal fees.

Then, in 2004, the local gun rights group decided to go grassroots and split from the NRA, explains president Mark Tober. As an affiliate of the national organization, they had to limit meetings to card-carrying members. GS2AC's monthly gatherings at Harry's Hofbrau in San Jose are now open to the public, and the group has bumped its membership from 50 to 300 in the past two years.

In this area, gun supporters come from both ends of the political spectrum. There are some who have been victims of crime and some who merely want to show their support for civil rights, even if they don't own a gun.

Then there are the recreational shooters, from construction workers to doctors, who will fight to protect their sport.

Dean Peterson, president of the Santa Clara Valley Rifle Club, says many in his group stay quiet to avoid attracting unwanted attention. "In cities, we are less likely to find sympathy for gun ownership," he says.

One Rifle Club member, who asked not to give his name, says stereotypes of gun owners are rampant in the urban Bay Area.

"They think we're all like Bubba with a beer on a messy front lawn," he says.

But when it comes to gun control initiatives like San Francisco's prohibition and a recent state bill to tax bullets, Peterson says, "We all rally together."

Could San Jose be the next big city to ban guns? Not likely, according to David Vossbrink, spokesman for Mayor Ron Gonzales. During his six years with the city, he doesn't remember councilmembers considering any steps in that direction.

"The mayor feels gun control is more properly dealt with at the state level," Vossbrink says.

Supervisor Alvarado's chief of staff Kristina Cunningham also says she isn't aware of any renewed regulatory efforts—even in light of Alameda County's recent victory in banning gun sales on all county property.

In 2004, the Supreme Court refused to review a previous 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision that said the prohibition did not violate the constitutional rights of firearms enthusiasts.

San Jose: The NRA's Waterloo

Things may have cooled down for now, but San Jose used be known as a hot spot for gun control when Joseph McNamara served as the police chief from 1976 to 1991. He widened the gap between law enforcement and the NRA by openly advocating firearm regulations and criticizing the association for interfering with measures aimed at protecting cops.

The NRA threatened McNamara with a lawsuit if he didn't shut up, and when that didn't work, the organization placed ads in national publications blasting him personally. In possibly the biggest blunder in the organization's history, they pegged their attack on a lie that McNamara supported legalizing drugs.

"It's ironic that a police chief—and entrusted model of moral behavior for our youth—wants to make illegal drugs legal but lawful guns unlawful," the ad read. "Such nonsense says nothing about real solutions to guns and crime, but much about McNamara's lost confidence in his ability to enforce the law."

But the NRA's attack backfired and gave the San Jose top cop even greater visibility. McNamara holds a doctorate from Harvard University and is currently a fellow for the conservative Hoover Institute.

Lately, as local advocate Kilmer points out, right-wing support of the firearms industry has been fuzzy. Senate Republicans challenged President Bush earlier this year when he sided with the NRA to propose legislation that would shield gun makers from lawsuits.

What's more, Kilmer says many local Republicans think GS2AC members are a bunch of "gun nuts." The local party did not return Metro's calls by presstime.

"It's a squishy issue for a lot of people," Kilmer says about the Second Amendment. Arguments for both sides bring up scary, life-threatening scenarios that may be uncomfortable to talk about.

So it's not surprising that people used to challenging comfort zones are rushing into this issue head-on. The Pink Pistols, a national network of LGTBQs in favor of gun rights, have come out as a strong voice in the furor over San Francisco's gun ban. The NRA has publicly expressed appreciation for the Pink Pistols' support—further blurring the left/right divide.

"That's one of the reasons we think this is a no-brainer for most people," argues GS2AC President Tober. "The issue isn't left-wing or right-wing. It's human nature."

Carla, a self-described "libertarian dyke" who frequents South Bay ranges, agrees.

"The religious right has attempted to identify their cause with the Second Amendment," she says. "But that confines the issue, in the minds of the public. The general concept applies to people of all orientations."

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