Power to the People!

Geoff Ainscow Sunnyvale, CA

On Monday, Dec 14th 2012, driving home from the airport I turned on the car radio to learn that twenty 6-year-old children had been murdered in their school class room in Newtown, Connecticut. I was stunned, furious, and outraged. By the time I arrived home, I’d decided I could no longer keep quiet about the insane gun culture in this country. I started to write a letter and a speech in my head.

How do people get a Bushmaster Semi-automatic assault weapon? I looked on the web and found 8 places that sell weapons in Sunnyvale, six were private homes with licenses to sell guns and ammunition. I decided to buy an assault weapon.

At the Big Five gun counter I asked the assistant “Do you have a Bushmaster Semi-automatic assault weapon?”

“Yes, any of the ones on display,” she said pointing at the wall.

“Could I hold the Bushmaster?” A question that immediately indicated I wasn’t a serious gun enthusiast. I held this lethal machine that could pump out 100 bullets per minute and said to the assistant, “I thought assault weapons were banned in California.”

“Yes, they are but this weapon is not classified as an assault weapon.” “You see this button,” touching a small button above the magazine, “the manufacturers include this button to get around the law.” Since it takes two hands to detach the magazine it’s classified as a rifle. “But don’t worry, you can hold a single bullet between your thumb and first finger while holding the magazine,” and kerchink, kerchink, she replaced the magazine in seconds, saying “It works just like an M16 military assault weapon!”

The gun and ammo industry in the US is big business, a $3 trillion a year market. There are 35,000 Starbucks in the US, 45,000 grocery stores and 135,000 gun stores.

I was not the only person in Sunnyvale greatly disturbed by the Newtown mass murder. Nancy Balam, who lives by the middle school and across the street from a private house selling weapons, and Dave Vargo, a retired engineer who had been active with the Brady campaign were both infuriated. They got together and persuaded the mayor to propose to the council the adoption of a set of gun safety measures.  The council, afraid to take a stand, could not agree, but they did agree to put a measure on the November ballot for the people to decide. I read about the measure and joined the committee as treasurer.

We registered the committee with the Fair Political Practices Committee in Sacramento and went to work distributing flyers, precinct walking, publishing articles, press releases, recruiting supporters, doing interviews, giving presentations, fund raising and getting out the vote.  The gun lobby bristled and threatened to sue the city for millions of dollars. We ignored their bullying.

The measure required reporting to police, the loss or theft of a firearm; in a home, locking up guns not in one’s immediate possession; prohibiting the possession of ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds; and the logging of ammunition sales by the seller. The measure passed overwhelmingly 66% to 33%. We celebrated with media coverage from around the country. The lawsuits and appeals came and were all thrown out by the courts. Sunnyvale has stronger gun safety measures on the books.

I learned two strong lessons from this experience:

A town can sometimes do what the Federal government, state government, or county government cannot do.

A small group of people can make a big difference. Eight of us influenced 12,400 people to vote YES and create laws that govern 150,000 people.

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