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California Town Steps Into Gun Control Cross-Fire


As chief of the Livermore police department, Ron Scott would rather spend his time snaring criminals than arguing with angry neighbors.

But by supporting an upcoming city ballot measure that would ban the sale of "junk guns," Chief Scott has found himself in the center of a political maelstrom.

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"The issue has drawn a lot of interest, and has a lot of people talking," Scott says, with a large dose of understatement.

Livermore's June 3 vote on "junk guns" - cheaply made handguns such as Saturday night specials - marks the first time a US city has taken the issue before the public for approval.

The ballot is just one salvo in a flurry of shots being fired in the gun-control debate across the US. California - with both statewide and local efforts to ban junk guns - is at the forefront of the battle.

In the California State Assembly, a package of proposals governing the manufacture and purchase of weapons is being proposed, including one bill that would ban junk guns throughout the state. Already, 33 California counties and cities - including Livermore - have outlawed the sale of junk guns. (Livermore's upcoming vote will be the first to put the issue before the whole populace, not just the town council.) Unlike many states, California allows its local governments to pass ordinances on weapons sales.

The move against junk guns began in West Hollywood, where city officials passed a ban in February 1996. Last November a trial court upheld the law, but the case is being appealed.

Local ordinances outlawing junk guns vary, but most ban certain small- and medium-caliber handguns that are relatively inexpensive, making them attractive to criminals. Gun-control activists argue the guns are poorly constructed and dangerous, and they point to the large number of crimes involving such guns. But gun advocates say banning them will do nothing to deter crime, and they say the "public safety" argument is just a way for antigun forces to take away Americans' right to bear arms.

In Livermore, a town of 65,000 on the northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley, the issue has split the community. It has led local churches to organize public forums and drawn support from national groups on both sides of the gun debate.

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"This is your normal California town," says Brian Maltee of Handgun Control Inc. "A lot of legislators will be looking at the city's vote to determine how to act on bills in the Assembly."

Supporters of a ban say there is a growing feeling that society is spinning out of control and public safety is eroding. "The best example is the Los Angeles shootout," says gun-control activist Kimberly Rowland of nearby Pleasanton, Calif., referring to the recent attempted bank robbery that was caught on camera and broadcast nationwide. "It seems logical to me that there are too many guns out there. There's a responsible middle ground we should be able to reach."

The debate here also reflects a community coming to grips with rapid growth. Once a quiet agricultural town, the city now hosts a booming population of San Francisco commuters. Its population is expected to keep growing. "We pride ourselves on the hometown feeling here," says Scott. "But there are a lot of people coming through here who no one knows, they're just passing through. That has raised concerns."

Dennis Towner, a local activist campaigning against the ballot measure, says informal surveys show a majority of Livermore residents oppose a ban, mostly because they are uncomfortable with more government regulation. But both sides say it is too early to predict the outcome of the vote. "This is just one skirmish," Mr. Towner says. "The war will go on for both sides after this vote."

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