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
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
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.
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the law repealed.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
“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.”
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
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
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.