LOS GATOS -- It's the kind of town that is so picky it once quibbled over what shade of red was suitable for the front door of a Talbots dress shop. It bans some ground-floor nail salons and winces at the notion of a Starbucks opening downtown.
So it's no wonder that Los Gatos, a South Bay community of 29,000, is in the midst of a culture war over a sporting goods store that primarily sells guns. The shop slipped quietly into town in conformance with existing land-use regulations that allow firearms sales, just days after the Dec. 14 school massacre in Newtown, Conn. Since then, the presence of the unassuming store has touched off an uproar, with public hearings that have drawn overflow crowds and death threats
Now, Los Gatos is one of a handful of local jurisdictions throughout California -- along with the Legislature -- that is weighing new regulations on firearms sales and ammunition in the wake of the Newtown mass killing. Among the others: Santa Cruz County, San Francisco, Los Angeles County and the city of Sacramento.
From Lafayette to Pinole to Campbell, at least three dozen cities and counties in California already regulate the commercial sale of guns. Most ban firearms dealers in residential neighborhoods; some go further, including prohibiting them near schools and other "sensitive" areas. Other cities require dealers to obtain liability insurance and conduct background checks on store employees.
However, gun-rights advocates consider them an infringement on their constitutional right to bear arms. Chuck Michel, an attorney for the National Rifle Association and other groups, pledges to challenge any new laws that go too far. It's no idle threat: In 2006, he successfully challenged a ban on the sale or possession of handguns that San Francisco voters had overwhelmingly approved.
"The anti-gun lobby is taking advantage of Newtown and dusting off ordinances that haven't had any traction," Michel said. "They are trying to regulate gun stores out of existence."
Battles over guns usually are associated with state capitols, Congress or crime-riddled cities. But it's an indication of just how passionately people feel on both sides of the gun-rights debate that the culture war is playing out in one of the Bay Area's most exclusive bedroom communities.
Opponents have expressed safety concerns about the store at a time when the country is regularly enduring a number of major, public acts of gun violence.
"It serves little more purpose than to make even more available weapons that have the potential to inflict grave bodily harm and death upon innocents," Los Gatos resident Dr. Ken Hoffman wrote to city officials.
Resident Nikki Segall had a more visceral reaction.
"I am still trying to absorb the tragedy of the massacre of the little children in Connecticut, seeing this ... felt like a punch in the stomach," she wrote. "How could this be approved in a town that does back flips whenever a new nail salon or new restaurant ... wants to open in town?"
But the store's supporters dismiss the security concerns, noting that one of the owners is a Los Gatos police officer with a spotless reputation and a commitment to gun safety.
"This is a completely legal business, and you have no right to throw a tantrum because you disagree politically with the objects it sells," resident Jeffrey Seacrist wrote.
His father, Al, wrote that the opposition thinks "it's too good for guns," a belief that he wrote smacks of a "NIMBY, elitist, snobbish, limousine liberal attitude."
The prospect of a gun shop surfaced last summer, six months before the Dec. 14 bloodbath rekindled the national debate on gun control. In bucolic Newtown -- which is about the size of Los Gatos -- a troubled 20-year-old man fatally shot his mother, then killed 20 elementary-school students and six adults before committing suicide.
The Los Gatos shop, Templar Sports, opened two weeks later, drawing a handful of protesters. The owners had obtained a business license in June without public review -- but in conformance with the law -- because of the absence of local gun regulations.
A small taupe-colored, flat-roofed building, Templar is on the less glamorous, north side of University Avenue, near an auto body shop. The blacked-out windows provide no clue that guns are sold. Inside, amid a modest amount of fishing gear, pistols, revolvers and rifles line the walls and fill glass cabinets, making up the bulk of merchandise.
At least three Los Gatos hardware or sporting goods stores, as well as private dealers, used to sell firearms. But Templar is the town's first store devoted primarily to guns.
When the owners were on the verge of filing for a business license in mid-June, they met with police Chief Scott Seaman. He emailed Town Manager Greg Larson that a gun store would be a "value to the community" by catering to sports enthusiasts. However, he also noted "the likelihood of community resistance to the idea of a 'gun shop.' " Templar received its business license about three days later.
But the council was not informed until about 74 days later, at the end of August. Even then, the item was buried in a list of "Items of Interest" after "Downtown Lights" and "Solid Waste Contract."
However, when the idea of the gun shop first came to Seaman and Larson, it was not only before Newtown, but also a month before the massacre at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. Back then, opening a gun shop was not quite as controversial as it has now become.
With accusations flying around charging secrecy, underhandedness by city staff members and favoritism toward the police officer, the Town Council scheduled a special hearing in early February that ultimately stretched five hours, drew 400 people and had to be continued the following week.
The council told the public there was nothing they could do about Templar. However, the panel agreed to consider a temporary moratorium on any additional gun sales by anyone in the town while it studies which permanent regulations to adopt.
"Our recommendations ... would move Los Gatos from being one of the historically least restrictive cities on guns," Larson said, "to one of the strongest in California, but still in keeping with the law and respecting the Second Amendment."
Contact Tracey Kaplan at 408-278-3482. Follow her at Twitter.com/tkaplanreport.