Anti-gun measure missing its target

Backers are hoping a media campaign will help boost the law’s deterrent effect.

December 16, 2002
Bee Capitol Bureau

–It’s a law prosecutors and cops love, defense attorneys hate and seasoned criminals fear almost as much as the dreaded “three-strikes” statute.

But there is growing concern that California’s hard-nosed, anti-gun law known as “10-20-Life” is a mystery to the very people it was designed to target five years ago: young would-be offenders and gang members.

“The inmates know about it, I can tell you that,” said Tom Bordonaro, a member of the state Board of Prison Terms and the legislation’s main Assembly sponsor when then-Gov. Pete Wilson signed it into law in 1997.

“But the key for it to be effective as a deterrent is for people to know about it before they get in front of a judge. That’s the part of the legislation where we weren’t successful.”

Bordonaro and others have tried several times without success to get the Legislature to part with a few million dollars for a statewide ad and education campaign similar to one in Florida.

Frustrated because he’s convinced gun crimes by young people would drop if more of them knew the exact consequences of pulling a firearm while committing a crime, Mike Reynolds, a Fresno wedding photographer credited with conceiving both three strikes and 10-20-Life, has again taken matters into his own hands.

Reynolds, whose 18-year-old daughter, Kimber, was shot to death by a parolee in 1992, has helped line up volunteers to launch an upcoming TV, billboard and poster blitz in that part of the Central Valley. Most of the resources are being donated, Reynolds said, by local printers, paper companies and other private businesses.

In coming weeks, Reynolds said, striking posters that show a criminal holding a gun and explain the law’s provisions will start popping up around Fresno.

And a 30-second TV spot has been prepared that ticks off 10 seconds of time for a young man in a cell before a stern narrator says:

“That’s 10 seconds. If you commit a crime and pull a gun, this will be your home for 10 years. Fire the gun, 20 years. Shoot someone, 25 years to life. 10-20-Life is the law. Get the picture?”

After a similar campaign immediately following the law’s effective date in January 1998, the percentage of robberies, assaults and homicides in Fresno that involved guns dropped an average of 42 percent over the following year, according to local crime statistics. In recent years, however, the percentages have crept back up to the state average, which is about 70 percent for homicides, 28 percent for robberies and 16 percent for aggravated assaults.

Although prosecutors around the state and the California District Attorneys Association say the law has become a powerful weapon in their fight against crime, it’s impossible to say precisely how much the statute is used. None of the agencies that typically record crime statistics keep track of what are known as “sentencing enhancements” such as the gun law.

Statewide, a survey of homicides, robberies and aggravated assaults from 1996 through 2001 shows the percentage involving firearms dropped slightly after the law went into effect, but prosecutors say it’s impossible to determine how much of that is attributable to 10-20-Life.

“When a young person gets to the judge, it’s too late,” Reynolds said. “At that point, you’ve lost a victim and some schmo is going away for a very long time. These young people need to be made aware of the consequences of pulling a gun.”

Alice Wong, a lawyer with the Sacramento County district attorney’s community prosecution unit, agrees that more awareness is needed.

When she and representatives of the Sacramento Sheriff’s and Police departments set up meetings with groups of eighth-graders as part of the so-called GIFT program – Gun-violence Information for Teens – she said the youngsters had never heard of 10-20-Life.

“They absolutely do not know what’s going on,” she said. “They are shocked when they’re told.”

Touted as one of the toughest gun laws in the country, Section 12022.53 of the California Penal Code provides that defendants as young as 14 who are convicted of a range of violent felonies will have 10 years added to their prison sentence if they displayed a gun while committing the crime, 20 years if they fired the gun, and an additional 25 years to life if a victim or bystander was shot.

For a person to be charged under the law, the firearm doesn’t have to be pulled or pointed at someone. It doesn’t even have to be loaded or in working order, as long as it’s used in a menacing manner.

Unlike “three strikes,” there has been no cry to soften or water down the gun law. The U.S. Supreme Court now has California’s “three-strikes” law under review because of several heavily publicized cases in which inmates whose third strike was not a violent felony were nonetheless sentenced to life in prison.

“It’s hard to find a criminal covered by 10-20-Life that could generate much public sympathy because they are people who use guns to commit violent felonies,” said Lawrence G. Brown, executive director of the District Attorneys Association.

Judges have no discretion under the law, and most district attorneys use it in the vast majority of cases they see. Defense attorneys and others who advocate case-by-case consideration of how to charge and sentence defendants say that has led to inequitable application of 10-20-Life.

“It makes for a very unfair playing field,” said Pete Harned, a local defense attorney who used to prosecute homicides for the Sacramento District Attorney’s Office. “I don’t like it. The prosecutors have been given so much leverage with these enhancements that it makes realistic negotiations impossible.”

Harned and other defense lawyers say they think the law is also unfair in cases involving multiple defendants. Under the law, if prosecutors can show gang affiliation, then everyone – armed or not – is eligible for the stiff sentences if anyone uses a gun. Without the gang designation, only the armed defendant can get the enhancement.

“It’s pretty easy in this town to show gang affiliation,” Harned said, “whether the activity is gang-related or not.”

Pete McCallair, executive director of the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco, has similar concerns.

“Any law that ties the hands of judges is bad law,” McCallair said. “That doesn’t mean I’m against long prison sentences for people who commit violent crimes with firearms. But there are always exceptions to the rule that have to be looked at individually.”

Prosecutors say they like the law, primarily because it is so black and white.

“We have a lot of people 19, 20, 21, 22 who do crimes with guns and then discover they’re not going to get out until their mid-30s or 40s,” said Chuck Nickel, a deputy district attorney in San Diego who helped draft the law.

“We’re taking away some of their prime-time criminal years. Instead of getting someone in prison and back out in three years and doing the same thing, this puts them away for some considerable time. It’s a tremendous law to get at the people who abuse guns.”

Most people in law enforcement agree and, like Reynolds, feel certain it would have a far greater deterrent effect if only more young people – especially gang members trying to prove themselves to their cohorts – understood the law before they commit a crime.

“When a guy goes down on a third strike, it’s in the papers,” Reynolds said. “It’s in the news. Even in the movies. You have to live in a cave to not know about ‘three strikes.’ It’s part of the vernacular.

“But when guys go down under this law, whether it’s on TV or in the newspapers, no one mentions 10-20-Life. The closest anyone comes is when they mention a ‘firearm enhancement,’ but it doesn’t ring any bells with people. We need to fix that and then I think we’d really have an impact.”