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S.F. gun ban finds support is scarce

FrancFFrancF Member Posts: 35,278 ✭✭✭
SAN FRANCISCO - On Thursday morning, a lawyer with the city attorney's office will try to convince a judge that a voter-passed initiative banning handguns and restricting other firearms is allowed by state law.

But save the four members of the Board of Supervisors who placed it on the ballot last November, the ordinance appears to have few prominent friends, even among national gun control advocates.

Mayor Gavin Newsom all but disowned it just before Election Day. State Attorney General Bill Lockyer and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, strong advocates of assault-weapons bans, have taken no position on the San Francisco law. Of four national gun control groups, only one, which is based here, has submitted a friend-of-the-court brief supporting it.

Meanwhile, national and state gun rights organizations, along with groups representing movie industry armorers and San Francisco police officers, have jumped into the fray, offering briefs to overturn the law.

"If you look at the history of the gun control movement, its strategy in the past has been to support such measures as the San Francisco ban," said Robert Spitzer, a professor at the State University of New York, Cortland, who has written on the politics of gun control.

"They may be now more interested in pursuing a more moderate political strategy, especially given the more conservative political environment they face today," he said.

The San Francisco law, approved by 58 percent of voters, prohibits the sale, distribution, transfer and manufacture of all firearms and ammunition, and generally bans the possession of handguns.

It is similar to a 1982 ordinance enacted after the 1978 City Hall shootings that killed Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk. A state appellate court invalidated that ordinance, ruling it was in essence a gun registration and licensing scheme, which only the Legislature can enact.

Proponents of the newest version, whose chief sponsor is Supervisor Chris Daly, say that it differs enough from the 1982 ordinance that the appellate ruling should not apply.

But the reasons underlying the ordinance have not changed much since Moscone and Milk were murdered: Gun violence continues to be a growing problem in San Francisco. According to the city, 80 people died from gunshot wounds last year, compared with 39 four years earlier. Many of those deaths occurred in the city's poorest communities.

"Gun violence is so pervasive that police and school officials regularly must 'lock down' schools in those neighborhoods ... when a threat is near," according to a brief filed by city attorneys. The ordinance targets handguns, which are more often used in crimes than rifles or shotguns, according to the city.

Opponents, though, said the courts should again overturn the ordinance for the same reasons the 1982 law was nullified. Even some gun control sympathizers agree.

The ordinance "sounds an awful lot like handgun licensing to me," Franklin Zimring, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall Law School, said in an interview.

"Should the cities have the power to do that? The answer is yes," he said. "But the way to do that, given the framework of California law, is get this Legislature to amend home rule powers."

Critics also argue, as they often do when fighting gun control laws, that San Francisco's law will do very little to curb crime. Moreover, movie armorers say the ordinance is so broad it will prevent them from using real guns that fire blanks when filming in the city. And auction houses may have to end their sale of antique firearms.

"We could not continue business in San Francisco," said Paul Carella of Bonhams & Butterfields, which auctions about $3 million worth of antique guns each year.

An employee at the city's only gun store said its owners had no comment on the law.

Among the groups to file briefs against the law were the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment Foundation, Gun Owners of California, the California Rifle and Pistol Association and the San Francisco Police Officers Association.

The only group to submit a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the law was the Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco nonprofit organization that in part argued that state Supreme Court decisions on local gun restrictions since 1982 offer the city enough legal wiggle room to enact a ban.

"This is part of a trend nationally," Juliet Leftwich, the group's senior counsel, said of the ordinance's passage. "There's growing frustration at the local level in response to the federal government's failure to act to curb gun violence."

Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Washington D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, said his group backs the law and handgun bans generally but that it chose not to participate in the San Francisco case because of a lack of resources.

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Violence - founded by Jim Brady, who along with then-President Ronald Reagan was shot and severely injured by a gunman in 1981 - have not taken advocacy positions on the San Francisco law. Calls seeking comment were not returned.

Newsom, asked by the San Francisco Chronicle about the ballot measure before the election, said he'd vote for it but predicted it "clearly will be thrown out. ... It's so overtly pre-empted" by state law.

A spokesman for Lockyer said the attorney general was not asked by the city to file a brief.

Feinstein, D-Calif., spearheaded the 1982 ban as Moscone's successor as mayor, and she was an author of the now-defunct federal assault-weapons ban. She has no position on the more recent ordinance because the courts have already spoken, an aide told the San Jose Mercury News before the initiative was passed.

Timothy Lytton, an Albany Law School professor who has written about gun control, said the silence reflects the debate among gun control advocates on how far to push firearm restrictions.

Some don't want to "lend credence to the idea in the gun rights community that all forms of advocating gun controls, no matter how limited, are just part of the long-term strategy to ban guns altogether," Lytton said.

Chuck Michel, a lawyer for the groups suing the city, said that other California cities would enact onerous firearm restrictions if San Francisco won in court. But if it lost, he said, he doubted that the Democratic-majority Legislature would change state law to allow local gun bans.

"Aside from Republicans that respect that right to choose to own guns for self-defense," he said, "there are plenty of Democrats that respect that right too, especially the ones in less urban environments and the Central Valley."
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