Nunchucks Are Banned in California...Except in Martial Arts Schools, Where They're All the Rage
|Chris Pellitteri demonstrates the art of nunchucks.|
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 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.Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.