In one of the Bay Area's more disputed ballot battles of 2013, Sunnyvale voters on Tuesday might decide to go much further than state lawmakers and the governor did this year in imposing new gun controls.
The Silicon Valley city of 146,000 is neither besieged by crime nor extremely liberal, yet it has become a new front in the national struggle over gun policy.
With Congress paralyzed, gun safety measures "need to come from the ground up, not the top down," said Mayor Tony Spitaleri, Measure C's driving force. "We've got to start somewhere. We just can't accept the fact that this (gun deaths) is the norm now."
Measure C would require gun owners to notify police within 48 hours of the loss or theft of their firearms; keep firearms locked up when not in the owner's immediate possession; and ammunition sellers to keep buyers' names for two years. It also would prohibit having ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. Each provision mirrors bills that failed this year in Sacramento.
The National Rifle Association has vowed to sue if Measure C passes; the group also urges voters to consider the millions of dollars other cities have spent defending gun-control ordinances.
The NRA is seeking cases it can take to the U.S. Supreme Court, and Measure C "presents a great opportunity for us," said Chuck Michel, the group's West Coast attorney.
State laws pre-empt Measure C, and it infringes on gun owners' constitutional rights, he said. "Measure C will confiscate the property of Sunnyvale residents and mandate an inappropriate universal firearm storage requirement that ignores individual circumstances, putting gun owners' lives at risk," Michel said.
Emotions are running high. More than 1,000 residents signed a petition urging stricter gun control earlier this year, and the City Council in June voted 5-2 to put the measure before voters. But after hearing from angry opponents Sept. 24, the council decided not to endorse or oppose it.
One city's gun control measure is not likely to have a deep effect, one expert said.
It's tough for a city's law to affect crime if the cities around it and the rest of the state don't follow suit, said John Donohue III, a Stanford law professor and gun policy expert. Yet "people are so frustrated by gun violence that they want to take expressive or symbolic action, even if they realize it won't make much difference," he said.
Sunnyvale has a median household income about 50 percent higher than the state's and a lower violent crime rate than most cities its size.
Spitaleri said Measure C is not about reducing crime. "This is about making it safer for people who have guns in the home, so that they pay more attention to how that weapon is handled," he said.
Sunnyvale's largest gun store, U.S. Firearms, launched a counterattack on its website, calling on volunteers to fight Measure C: "Tired of California politicians beating up on law-abiding gun owners? Then here's your chance to pitch in and roll back the anti-gun tide," it says. "Voter turnout will be low, so with your help WE CAN WIN THIS FIGHT!"
The pitch refers would-be volunteers to Steve Sarette, a member of the committee against Measure C. Neither Sarette nor store owner Eric Fisher would comment for this story.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg contributed $3,000 for Measure C, a big boost to the $5,400 the measure received by Oct. 19. The anti-C committee had raised and spent $468 by that date.
Michel said Bloomberg, co-founder and a major funder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns -- of which Spitaleri is a member -- wants Sunnyvale to be a social-engineering experiment but won't be there to pay its legal bills. Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser said that "when a city is taking an innovative approach to solving a long-standing problem, Mayor Bloomberg is happy to offer his support."
Other cities have had mixed results defending their gun ordinances.
San Francisco voters in 2005 banned the manufacture, sale, transfer or distribution of firearms or ammunition and also banned handgun possession. Michel represented the NRA and other groups in a lawsuit that kept that ordinance from taking effect, and a court later struck it down. San Francisco paid $380,000 for the plaintiffs' legal costs.
San Francisco supervisors on Tuesday approved a high-capacity magazine ban similar to Measure C's. Michel is preparing a legal challenge, and he said he will do the same if Los Angeles enacts a similar ban. And Michel on Oct. 7 asked a federal appeals court to overturn a trial court's refusal to block San Francisco's 2007 safe-storage ordinance.
Spitaleri denounced the NRA's lawsuit threat: "All they are doing is bullying."
But Michel said the NRA lawsuits are "a promise to the people who don't want their rights infringed," not a threat against those who vote for such measures.
Each part of the city's gun-control measure on the Tuesday ballot mirrors 2013 state bills that did not become law.