San Francisco to Vote on Handgun Ban

Frustrated by a 28 percent increase in homicides during the past year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (search) has proposed a sweeping measure banning handguns, injecting the city into the national debate over gun control.

The proposal will appear on the municipal ballot in November and would bar residents from keeping handguns in their homes or businesses. It also would prohibit the sale, manufacture and distribution of any firearms or ammunition in San Francisco, where residents have bought nearly 22,000 handguns since 1996, according to the state attorney general's office.

Supervisor Chris Daly (search), who proposed the measure, said he and other supervisors already have received threatening phone calls and e-mails from gun supporters.

"Up to this point, I don't think anyone has come up with anything that's working," Daly said. "This is my contribution to trying to figure out a way to turn back the tide of violence."

Only two other major U.S. cities — Washington, D.C., and Chicago — have implemented handgun bans, and both were quickly challenged in the courts. The national gun lobby already has vowed to challenge San Francisco's ban if voters approve it.

San Francisco had 88 murders in 2004, up from 69 in 2003. Sixty-three of last year's homicides involved a firearm, Police Sgt. Neville Gittens said. The city has averaged 71 homicides a year over the past decade, from a low of 58 in 1998 to a high of 99 in 1995.

While last year's number of homicides is an increase from the previous year, it's comparable to other cities of similar size. In 2003, for example, Jacksonville, Fla., had 92 murders and Indianapolis had 112.

That's one reason opponents are questioning whether such a sweeping proposal is necessary.

San Francisco's plan is ill-conceived and misplaced, said Chuck Michel, a Los Angeles lawyer who represents the National Rifle Association (search) and the California Rifle and Pistol Association (search).

"It's turning firearms into a scapegoat for failed city policies," Michel said. "Criminals are never going to have any kind of problem getting the kind of guns they want."

Michel said he's preparing a legal challenge claiming a ban would violate the Second Amendment and that cities do not have the authority to regulate firearms. He said he plans to file his challenge before ballots are printed.

If approved by a majority of the city's voters, the law would take effect in January 2006. Residents would have 90 days to relinquish their handguns.

Gun-control opponents argue that such bans elsewhere have had little or no effect.

Washington, D.C., banned handguns in 1976 and noted an immediate 25 percent drop in firearm-related homicides, according to a 1991 study that appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine. According to the Journal statistics, the number of homicides fell from 13 per month to about 10.

In later years, however, the district became notorious for its violent-crime rate. Last year, Washington had 248 homicides, or 20.7 per month.

That's a rate of 44 homicides per 100,000 residents. By comparison, San Francisco, has a rate of 9.2.

Daly, a Washington-area native, said it's unfair to compare the two cities. The district faces greater poverty, unemployment and "serious social issues that I wouldn't expect the majority of pro-gun America to understand," he said.

A bill to overturn the Washington, D.C., ban passed the U.S. House of Representatives in September but died in the Senate. Meanwhile, the ban withstood a recent legal challenge based on the Second Amendment because it's a district, not a state. An appeals court judge decided the right to bear arms does not apply.

Chicago passed its ordinance in 1982. Under it, no new handguns could be bought or possessed, but those who already had handguns were allowed to keep them.

Two years later, a federal appeals court upheld the freeze, saying it "does not trample fundamental personal rights." The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the handgun ordinance in place.

It's impossible to know just how many guns are on the streets of San Francisco because the state specifically forbids local governments from requiring firearms to be registered or licensed.

A buyer must fill out a form and submit to a background check when purchasing a gun, but that information does not need to be updated when the person moves, or loses or sells the gun.

There are just three licensed gun dealers in San Francisco, according to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Two of those are auction houses that deal mostly with antique weapons. Workers at the city's only retail gun store, High Bridge Arms in the Mission District, refused to speak with The Associated Press.

Gittens, the San Francisco police spokesman, said a concealed-weapons permit is currently required to carry a gun outside one's home or business in the city. Police have issued just 10 of those permits.

Current and former law enforcement officers are exempt from that requirement. One is city resident Jack Hart, who spent six years as a California Highway Patrol officer until a motorcycle accident forced him to retire in 1963.

He said he generally carries his .357-caliber handgun with him for protection and doesn't think the ban, if passed, will be allowed to stand.

"Only the lawful people will be deprived," he said while at the Pacific Rod and Gun Club in San Francisco. "The others, it won't affect them at all."

San Francisco's Pink Pistols (search), a gay and lesbian gun-rights group, also opposes the initiative and is organizing a letter-writing campaign to the Board of Supervisors, spokesman Tom Boyer said.

"Outlawing handguns would raise crime," he said. "A handgun is a very useful defensive tool."

This will not be the first time San Francisco has attempted a handgun ban.

In 1982, a city ordinance was overturned because it applied to anyone who entered the city. A state court ruled that such actions were reserved for the state Legislature.

The drafters of the latest ordinance, anticipating a court battle, made sure it applies only to San Francisco residents, hoping to overcome at least one legal hurdle.

California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (search) has yet to take a position on San Francisco's proposal, but spokesman Nathan Barankin said Lockyer generally opposes such bans because they're "rarely effective in promoting public safety."