OPINION: San Francisco Gun Ban A Losing Proposition
Wednesday, September 14, 2005
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If there's anything Americans have learned from the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it's that there are times when the government is simply unable to protect its citizens. The looting of nonessential items, robberies, carjackings, murders and rapes that overtook New Orleans as chaos gripped the city demonstrated what can happen when the government loses control.
Countless stories were told about unarmed citizens who were defenseless against the criminals who preyed upon them. Only those who were armed were able to fend off the encroaching violence. In such cases, self-defense is all that's left, which is perhaps why gun sales rose exponentially in Louisiana right after the disaster. The fact that police and military units in New Orleans later began confiscating those weapons does not bode well for the city's remaining residents.
If the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has its way, law-abiding residents could find themselves at the mercy of criminals in the event of a similar disaster. Given that the Bay Area is ground zero for earthquakes, it's not a very good idea to take away residents' capacity to fend for themselves. But Proposition H, a measure on the November ballot that seeks to ban handguns in San Francisco, would do just that.
Proposed by Supervisor Chris Daly and supported by Supervisors Tom Ammiano and Bevan Dufty, Prop. H is endorsed by the San Francisco Democratic Party and the Committee to Ban Handgun Violence. But Prop. H is unlikely to have any impact on handgun violence, despite being one of the most extreme gun-ban proposals in the country. Not only does Prop. H prohibit the ownership of handguns in San Francisco, the draconian measure also prohibits the "the sale, distribution, transfer and manufacture of all firearms and ammunition." Yet none of this will affect criminals, who will simply continue to buy and sell firearms illegally. Ironically, it's law-abiding citizens who will bear the brunt of this misguided measure.
While taking handguns away from citizens, Prop. H provides an exemption for "any City, state or federal employee carrying out the functions of his or her government employment," such as police officers and members of the military or the National Guard. In other words, it creates a police state. For such an anti-authoritarian city, this seems a strange goal indeed.
But San Francisco police officers aren't exactly enthusiastic about Prop H. For one thing, the measure is unclear on whether off-duty or retired police officers will be affected. And police are worried that they would have to arrest gun-owning violators in their own homes. Sounds like a recipe for dead cops.
Although Prop. H is likely to make San Francisco a destination for criminals, the measure is couched in anti-crime terminology. In the lone ballot argument supporting the initiative, Supervisor Chris Daly points to crime and suicide rates supposedly attributable to the mere presence of handguns. But as a point-by-point dissection of Daly's argument demonstrates, he is far from informed on the subject. Since no gun-control groups have announced their support for the measure and not one paid argument in favor of Prop. H appears on the ballot, Daly doesn't seem to be inspiring much confidence.
It's little wonder, for Daly makes no distinction between legal and illegal gun owners, and somehow manages to convince himself that criminals will simply stop dealing in black-market firearms because of Prop. H. As he puts it, "Fewer handguns in the flow of commerce will make it more difficult to obtain one." He provides no basis for this assumption and ignores statistics from such cities as Washington, D.C., and Chicago, which saw their murder rates soar after instituting gun bans. He also overlooks the considerable number of crimes that are prevented each year by defensive gun use. Whether or not Daly and other gun-banners want to believe it, there is no evidence that gun control reduces crime or violence. In fact, it has the opposite effect.
As always, Daly and his colleagues invoke the (supposedly) ominous shadow of the National Rife Association to scare off San Francisco liberals. Although the NRA publicly opposes Prop. H, it has remained conspicuously absent from the local discussion, knowing full well that its name is politically loaded in this city.
Supervisors Off the Charts
In actuality, the opponents of Prop. H span the political spectrum. The San Francisco Republican Party, the Libertarian Party of San Francisco and the Coalition Against Prohibition are joined by the San Francisco Pink Pistols and Roy Bouse, president of the Tenant Association, in denouncing the measure. Asian American activist Alma Anino worries that the ban will take away her community's "Second Amendment rights," while Libby Green, president of the Senior Citizen Alliance, calls it the "Rapist Protection Act."
The Committee to Oppose Handgun Ban, which describes itself as "a grassroots liberal political action committee" and whose chairman Davy Jones is a "a LGBT community leader, union member, advocate for civil rights," hardly sounds like a bunch of right-wingers. Probably the most comprehensive anti-Prop. H reference resource, SFGunBan.com was put together by San Francisco resident Michael Sarfatti, who's not affiliated with any political party or organization.
Apparently, respect for Second Amendment rights cuts across all ideological boundaries. Except for those of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, that is.
Symbolism or Seriousness?
When I first wrote about the then-proposed Prop. H. several months ago, I had high hopes that the measure wouldn't make it onto the ballot, whether because of its own considerable deficiencies or because of challenges in court. Matt Gonzalez had stepped down as president of the Board of Supervisors, and Michele Alioto-Pier wisely chose to withdraw her support. But Gonzalez's letter to the Department of Elections had already been submitted and the proposition accepted by the time he left. With the necessary four supervisors technically on board, the initiative wound up on the ballot after all.
Mayor Gavin Newsom has remained silent on the issue so far. Since the overriding sentiment in San Franciscans is that "guns are bad" and should therefore be outlawed, Prop. H could well pass. If it does, it's likely to be challenged in the courts. The wording of the measure seeks to avoid the fate of the 1982 handgun ban, in which state law preempted the city ordinance. But several crucial issues remain unclear; namely:
-- Handgun owners are given 90 days to "surrender" their handguns to the police or sheriff's department, but owners must first be identified. Given that the city is prohibited by state law from registering or licensing gun owners, what database will officials consult to obtain the information needed to begin the identification process?
-- Although the ordinance refers to still undefined penalties for violations, it's unlikely that the city will be able to force people to turn in their handguns. How will the city enforce the ban, should residents prove unwilling to comply?
-- Prop. H is tantamount to government confiscation of property from nonfelons. Will the city compensate handgun owners for their property?
When the Board of Supervisors addresses these questions, then we'll know they're serious. But as it is, the measure seems destined to be nothing more than a symbolic statement, which is something San Francisco has become famous for in recent years. Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi, who claims to support Prop. H in theory, admitted that "the legislation largely would be symbolic without enforcement."
Unfortunately, symbolism means nothing when the practical needs of a city are put to the test. Should San Francisco face its own disaster in the years to come, these are the leaders to whom people will look for guidance. Somehow, this doesn't exactly inspire confidence.
Cinnamon Stillwell is a Bay Area writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org