CHUCK POOCHIGIAN: Message with Punch: Use a Gun, You’re Done

(Updated Thursday, July 28, 2005, 4:50 AM)

California has one of the toughest gun laws in the nation, “10-20-Life — Use a Gun, and You’re Done.” The law imposes mandatory sentences for criminals who use guns while attempting or committing violent crimes like murder, rape or robbery.

Those who ignore the law are sentenced to 10 years for pulling a gun, 20 years for firing a gun and 25 years to life for shooting someone.

Unfortunately, eight years after the law was signed, the awareness of “10-20-Life” among would-be criminal gunmen in our state is too low for maximum deterrence.

Gun violence takes a serious toll on Californians every year. The human costs to the thousands of victims and their families are immeasurable. The actual costs to state and local governments associated with investigating, prosecuting and imprisoning perpetrators of gun violence are in the billions.

While general crime rates in the state have fallen over the past decade, there has been a disturbing increase in homicides. Typically, around 70% of all murders are committed with a gun. State policymakers need to take action to reduce violent gun crimes.

Investing in a coordinated statewide campaign to raise public awareness of the penalties for committing a crime while using a gun would help to keep many of these crimes from occurring in the first place.

Targeted programs stressing the penalties for gun violence have proven to be successful deterrents in jurisdictions where they have been employed.

For instance, Fresno initiated its own “10-20-Life” public awareness campaign the year after the law went into effect. Between 1997 and 1998, proponents of the law, led by Fresno resident Mike Reynolds, who spearheaded California’s “10-20-Life” law, spent just $10,000 in donated funds and worked with local law enforcement and media to publicize the new penalties for gun violence.

There was a 40% decline in the number of gun-related homicides, robberies and assaults in Fresno that year.

In 1998, Florida launched its own version of California’s “10-20-Life” law, complete with a $2.7 million public education campaign highlighting new penalties for gun crimes.

While both states’ homicide statistics were comparable at the time the campaign started, by 2003, Florida’s homicide rate and rank among states had dropped, while California’s increased in both categories.

Deterrent effect

These examples demonstrate the deterrent effect that an effective “10-20-Life” public-education program can have. Previous promotional efforts have included freeway billboards, storefront posters, bumper stickers on police vehicles and educational materials for classrooms.

However, public service announcements on television and radio have probably had the biggest impact.

In Florida, action-star Chuck Norris was a spokesperson for the “10-20-Life” media campaign, as were local sports figures and law enforcement officials. In California, one wouldn’t have to look too far for an action-hero spokesperson who could raise the profile of our “10-20-Life” law.

The category of people most likely to commit gun crimes, namely males between the ages of 15 and 25, would be the logical target for a coordinated public awareness campaign. Individuals who enter our corrections system at a young age are more likely to re-offend and return to prison as adults — often embarking on a life of crime. Publicizing the stiff penalties for gun crimes would aim to stop this vicious cycle.

This year I am carrying legislation, SB388, to create a pilot program to promote “10-20-Life” in a few jurisdictions across California. It is my hope that this would eventually be expanded to a statewide media and public awareness campaign. The measure has received broad support from both sides of the aisle, without any “no” votes to date. This is the kind of sensible anti-crime legislation that everyone can support.

Criminal justice policies only reach their full potential of impacting the behavior of would-be lawbreakers if they are simple to understand, tough enough to be deterrents and notorious enough, in the minds of criminals, to be remembered in the heat of the moment. California’s “10-20-Life” law is lacking only in notoriety.

California spends more than $7 billion a year on the Department of Corrections alone. A promotional campaign would quickly pay for itself if it deterred gun violence and reduced the number of murders and robberies in our state by even a small percentage.

Invest in the message

An investment into promoting our state’s “10-20-Life” law would actually save money while saving lives. We have the law, but we need to do more to educate criminals about the penalties for violating it. We must send the message to those who may be prone to gun violence that in California, if you use a gun, you’re done.