Mattie Scott stands in front of a packed house at the Mountain View City Council Chambers. She’s here to talk about her son and nephew, both of whom were killed in gun violence. As she tells her and the boys’ story, someone in the back shouts, “You’re disgusting!”
Another woman speaks about the gut-wrenching loss of her child, who was also shot and killed. Like Scott, she has come here to advocate for better gun control in her community. But not everyone has the same agenda. In the back of the chambers, a group of mostly white men are here to shout them down.
Some hold protest signs, while others wear yellow Star of David armbands. They are the persecuted—not the dead. Before the meeting ends, one of these men will tell Scott, an African American, to “go back to where you came from.”
Said one attendee, “I think there should have been a metal detector.”
This Feb. 8 meeting, held three months after Sunnyvale passed Measure C, a municipal gun-control ordinance, is only the beginning. Communities in Silicon Valley have unexpectedly become ground zero for gun nuts and the malevolent NRA, as towns like Los Gatos and Cupertino consider measures similar to Sunnyvale’s, which restricts the size of gun clips and requires greater record-keeping of firearms.
Forum organizer and Mountain View resident Sally Lieber, a former state assemblymember who in 2005 successfully co-authored a bill to ban sniper rifles, says the protesters were “hell bent on shouting down and stopping our forum. But we kept moving forward.” The anger displayed by pro-gun activists may have worked to drown out the speakers, Lieber adds, but there’s a far more substantial group that won’t be so easily intimidated: voters.
Officials from more than a half-dozen local municipalities—San Carlos, Menlo Park, Los Altos, Cupertino, San Jose and Los Gatos—are closely watching Sunnyvale’s case while considering their own initiatives in upcoming elections. The San Francisco–based Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence has begun providing free legal counsel to some of these cities in anticipation of the inevitable court challenges brought by the NRA and other pro-gun forces.
Sunnyvale’s Measure C, which came in direct response to the December 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., passed with 66 percent of voters approving a package of some of the most progressive gun-control laws in the country. The ordinance bans ownership of magazines to no more than 10 rounds, requires residents to lock up their guns at home, places the onus on gun-store owners to keep records of ammunition sales for two years and makes it a crime if lost or stolen guns are not reported within 48 hours.
As expected, the NRA took swift action, demanding a temporary injunction in federal court. Lawyers on both sides argued positions in Judge Ronald M. Whyte’s San Jose courtroom Friday.
Whyte’s decision is expected any day, and his ruling could be affected by a recent case in San Francisco, where a judge last week tossed out the NRA’s lawsuit against a city statute banning high-capacity magazines. An NRA spokesman said the organization will appeal that judge’s decision. Overcoming an electorate could be far more difficult. While Congress has done nothing since the Newtown tragedy, polling shows that a broad majority of Americans favor greater gun control and background checks.
“The one thing [the NRA is] afraid of is the votes,” says Tony Spitaleri, who previously served as mayor of Sunnyvale and spearheaded Measure C. “We demonstrated that when you put sensible gun measures on the ballot, they pass. They can’t buy the voters. They can’t influence the voters with their money. So knowing that, that’s our leverage.”
Along with members of the Sunnyvale Citizens for Sensible Gun Measures and other gun-control groups, Spitaleri and Lieber are helping activists in other locales. And the Sunnyvale group is not done in its own town—even more gun-control measures could be on the way.
Activists in Los Gatos successfully lobbied the town council in September to enact tougher zoning laws when it comes to gun stores. That movement began when Templar Sports opened its doors just days after Newtown. Alarmed residents demanded the council revoke the gun-shop owners’ zoning permit, in part because there were no public hearings prior to the store’s opening. Templar was eventually allowed to remain open with new conditions, and an approval process was created for future gun stores.
Shannon Susick, a member of the Citizens Coalition for a Safe Los Gatos, says the group plans on starting the process of organizing toward a ballot measure this spring. “There’s more work to be done, that’s for sure,” she says.
The process in Sunnyvale took several months of organizing, says Spitaleri, who dedicated his last year in office to working with other concerned citizens on Measure C. He insists that he reached out to the NRA and other pro-gun advocates to find common ground. “They never called back,” he says.
A spokesman for the law firm representing the NRA in the Sunnyvale lawsuit told Metro in an email that his firm was too busy to respond to an interview request.
Spitaleri says the majority of gun owners want sensible laws on the books, and that it’s the gun industry and a small, vocal group that refuse to bend.
“These local measures are going to be their Achilles heel,” he says. “It will weaken them, maybe driving them to sit down” and discuss solutions.
Spitaleri adds that most people he’s spoken to about gun control are not interested in taking away guns.
“We’re not there to say you’re not allowed to have a gun in your house to protect your family,” says Scott, who spoke at the forum as a representative of the groups Healing 4 Our Nation and Mothers in Charge. “They didn’t give us a chance to explain that.”
Regardless, the momentum appears to be leaning in favor of gun control.
“It was unfortunate that pro-gun activists didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to listen and learn more about a movement that they oppose,” Lieber says. “We will keep organizing and continue to make further gains.”