San Francisco weighs merits of handgun ban

A bold ballot initiative could make the city a pioneer in gun control. But will it cut crime, or simply infuriate the gun lobby?

In a city so often intent on making brash political statements, Chris Daly's tone is decidedly practical.

Last year, when the number of homicides nationwide fell unexpectedly and dramatically, murders in San Francisco surged. The district attorney called it an epidemic, police targeted new gang activity, and the mayor went door-to-door in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods to plead for calm - all to no avail.

So, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, Mr. Daly got serious. He has proposed a ban on handguns in the city, prohibiting any resident from making, buying, or even owning them. If approved by voters this fall, the ballot measure would give San Francisco the toughest handgun laws of any major city in the United States.

Daly insists that his proposal is simply about making San Francisco safer - being the vanguard of gun control is just a fringe benefit. Yet most experts are not convinced that handgun bans have any significant effect on crime, and some add that the ban's most likely outcome would be to provoke the national gun lobby in the same way that San Francisco's gay marriages riled cultural conservatives.

Once again, this most liberal of cities stands poised to take the lead on one of the most controversial areas of public policy, rousing to action both those who would follow sout and those who would oppose such measures.

"Laws like this have a symbolic meaning, but no effect other than to keep the issue inflamed," says William Vizzard, author of "Shots in the Dark: Politics, Policy, and Symbolism of Gun Control."

On one hand, San Francisco's national influence on the topic of gun control is limited, given that only 11 states allow cities to devise gun laws. Yet cities - and particularly California cities - have been the incubators for some of the most far-reaching gun-control laws to spread across the country, including assault-weapons bans and monthly limits on how many guns one person can purchase.

Whether the handgun ban would be a useful addition to this suite of gun-control laws, however, is uncertain. Two major US cities - Washington and Chicago - have had similar handgun bans in place for more than 20 years. Daly cites a 1991 study by the New England Journal of Medicine that suggests that the ban in Washington had an effect on violent crime in the years immediately after it began in 1976.

Moreover, his plan is even tougher, requiring residents who own guns to turn them in - the Washington and Chicago plans had clauses that allowed those who owned guns before the ban to keep them.

"With fewer handguns in the city, criminals will be much less likely to get their hands on one," says Daly, noting that handguns were involved in more than 60 percent of last year's 88 murders here.

The long-term tends, though, have not been positive. Washington and Chicago perennially have some of the highest homicide rates in the US. Last year, when Chicago's homicide count dropped an unprecedented 25 percent, the reason was not the ban so much as a new vigilance in getting guns out of the hands of criminals - using laws already on the books in many states.

"They were not trying to get guns out of law-abiding homeowners' hands," says Arthur Lurigio, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Loyola University in Chicago. "But when they encountered suspects, they were vigorously confiscating guns and trying to figure out where they can find more guns."

Others agree that the greatest success in lowering murder rates has come when law-enforcement officials have made taking guns from criminals a top priority.

"There is no cheap way out of this," says Philip Cook, a public-policy professor at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "Criminals have a way of getting guns no matter what the law is."

That's not to say handgun bans are a bad idea, some analysts hasten to say, but rather that they might not necessarily be an effective crime-fighting tool all by themselves. In addition, they can make "reasonable" gun-control laws harder to pass, by bringing gun owners to a boil, says Dr. Vizzard.

In Washington, the National Rifle Association already has its eyes on San Francisco. The city passed a similar measure in 1982, but it was struck down in court because it illegally usurped state authority. Daly believes his proposal solves the problem, but it will surely receive a stiff legal test if it passes in November.

"The buzz is out there, and folks are watching with interest," says Andrew Arulanandam, a spokesman for the NRA. "This is a draconian gun ban... It is not a matter that ought to be taken lightly."

He suggests that gun owners, feeling ever besieged by governments and gun laws, are more politically attuned than most Americans. And there is perhaps no better example than Paul Quinn.

As a San Franciscan, he would have to turn over his handguns to authorities if the measure wins in November. To him, San Francisco's plan is less a criminal-justice mistake than a constitutional farce.

He portrays himself as a moderate. Though he calls guns "marvels of engineering," he bought his first one only five years ago when he moved here; he fears the chaos that could erupt after a large earthquake. Now, he's a self-made Second Amendment scholar, quoting 19th-century court decisions about the authority of the Supreme Court and the inconsistency of American gun laws.

The fight has come to his home turf. "It's nonsense," he says of the ballot measure. "It offends my sense of liberty much more than my sense of security."

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