Nunchucks Are Banned in California...Except in Martial Arts Schools, Where They're All the Rage

Chris Pellitteri demonstrates the art of nunchucks.
Chris Pellitteri demonstrates the art of nunchucks.
L.J. Williamson

To the uninitiated, the list of illegal weapons in the summary

booklet of California Firearms Laws might be mistaken for an algebra

text. Full of unintelligible strings of letters and numbers -- MAS 223,

HK-PSG-1, Encom MP-9 -- and obscure terms (thumbhole stock, flash

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suppressor, center fire, forward pistol grip) the booklet also contains

specific definitions for illegal items: A short-barreled shotgun is one

with a barrel of less than 18 inches. A short-barreled rifle has a

barrel of less than 16 inches. A large-capacity magazine is one that can

accept more than 10 rounds.

All of it evokes the militaristic,

menacing world of weaponry: sophisticated, technical, deadly. Until you

get to the section defines the term nunchaku -- basically, two sticks on a

rope.

In California, possession of an AR-15 -- the same gun that James Holmes used to shoot up a Batman

premiere in Aurora, Colo. -- is legal, provided it was bought and

registered prior to 2000. Possession of nunchaku, or nunchucks, however,

is a felony -- no matter when they were purchased.

The nunchucks

ban was added to the California penal code in 1974, at a moment when the

United States was in the kung-fu grip of a martial arts craze. Sparked

by the 1973 release of Bruce Lee's Enter The Dragon and spurred by such pop phenomena as the TV series Kung Fu and the song "Kung Fu Fighting," martial arts fever was spiking, along with a faddish interest in martial arts weapons.

Menaced by the trend, Newsweek

published a sensational article on nunchucks, called "Killing Sticks."

The article's alarm bells prompted lawmakers around the country to

contemplate bans, but only New York, Massachusetts, Arizona and

California followed through, with then-Gov. Ronald Reagan signing

California's bill into law.

In California, desperate martial arts

instructors made a successful plea to the state assembly the following

year to amend the bill. It now allows possession of nunchucks -- but only

on the premises of a martial arts school.

Sensei Chris Pellitteri

is a karate instructor with a studio in Upland; he teaches two weekly

classes on using nunchucks. At the age of 15, Pellitteri made his first

pair of nunchucks out of a chopped broom handle and a piece of dog leash

chain. If, wanting a practice pair, any of his students did the same at

home, they'd be guilty of a felony.

Pellitteri would like to see

the law repealed. Yet rather than express outrage, Pellitteri describes

the ban as "silly" -- and describes efforts to change it as nearly

hopeless.

"Nunchucks is a subset of martial arts, which is a

subset of sports, and you go down and down and down, and I don't see

that being enough people to care," he says.

It's "not like the NRA guys that call every day and leave messages for the representatives and get things done."

Despite

his 7th degree black belt in karate and a 6th degree black belt in

nunchaku, along with 25 years of teaching martial arts, the 42-year-old

Pellitteri looks nothing like a ninja. Soft, round and bearded, he's

easy to spot in his black karate gi amid the white gi

of his students. At the entry to his dojo, there's a faux-menacing

poster that says, "The Pellitteris: We're Coming To Get You!" It's an

image of Pellitteri, his 5-year-old son and his 3-year-old daughter, all

in karate gear, fists at the ready. His son's belt is purple, his

daughter's pink.

Kids, of course, are the lifeblood of any karate

business. Even while Pellitteri maintains the formalities of martial

arts custom -- students bow as they enter and exit the dojo and answer

him with a shouted "Yes, Sensei!" -- he rules the roost more like a

favorite uncle than a feared fighting master. At the end of class, the

kids line up and yell, "Thank you, Sensei!" to which Pellitteri barks:

"Car Wash!" His students respond by clapping out the rhythm to the

disco-era tune.

As the kids class files out and the smaller group

of nunchucks students files in, the playful atmosphere hardly changes.

Although these students are dedicated, they're clearly not trying to

become Bruce Lee-style killing machines. They're just here to learn

Pellitteri's techniques, which incorporate a blend of traditional and

"freestyle" moves, defined as "the flashy stuff that looks cool."

Elaborates

one student, "Nunchucks are good for learning hand-eye coordination,

and they help you think about how to move your body, but they're not

really practical for self-defense."

Nunchucks originated from a

rather primitive agricultural tool -- a flail for separating rice from

chaff. The trouble with this farm-boy weapon is that it takes a

significant amount of instruction just to reach a point at which you can

consistently smack your target more often than you smack yourself. The

San Diego Police Department, which employed them for a time, gave up

after realizing that most of the available alternatives didn't require

nearly as much training. Obviously, a well-placed klonk with a wooden

stick is enough to ruin anyone's day, especially if that stick is

attached to a fast-swinging rope. But a beginner could score roughly

equivalent damage points with the handle of a garden rake, or any wooden

stick you had lying around -- and possessing most wooden sticks isn't a

felony.

Pellitteri theorizes that because lawmakers who want to

buck the NRA frequently find themselves outgunned, they do what they can

by aiming for easier targets -- like nunchucks. In New York, a guy named

Jim Maloney mounted a Second Amendment challenge to that state's ban

but was unsuccessful. Maloney then took his case to the Court of Appeals

for the Second Circuit. There, a panel of three judges, including a

pre-SCOTUS Sonia Sotomayor, upheld New York's ban, determining that the

Second Amendment keeps the federal government from limiting weapon

ownership but doesn't prevent state governments from doing so.

Other

than that case, there's been little initiative to have any of the bans

lifted. Unlike the NRA, the martial arts community has no lobbying

group. Pellitteri circulated an online petition for a while but never

got enough signatures to effect a real change.

The class ends with

a game that might be described as nunchucks baseball. A student hauls

out a Rubbermaid garbage bin filled with chopped-up pieces of Styrofoam

pool noodles and begins pitching them, one by one, to the other

students, who swat them in midair with their nunchucks, sending them

flying around the room like gaily colored snowballs.

Soon, the

floor is littered with chunks of bubble-gum pink, lime green and

periwinkle blue, as if there has just been a particularly riotous party.

But the party's over almost as soon as it's begun, and it's time to

toss the foam bits back into the garbage bin. Then the students hang

their nunchucks back on the dojo wall, because, of course, they can't

take them home. That would be a crime.

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