San Francisco misfires with handgun ban

November 16, 2005|By STEVE CHAPMAN

CHICAGO -- It's not easy to do, but gun-control advocates in San Francisco have come up with an anti-firearms measure that embarrasses even some gun-control advocates. The red-faced ones may realize this one is not likely to work even if it is upheld in court, which it almost certainly will not be. But the pointlessness of the initiative didn't stop San Franciscans from approving it by a hefty majority.

Proposition H outlaws the sale, manufacture, transfer and ownership of handguns and ammunition in the city. Unlike other cities that enacted bans but allowed residents to keep weapons they already had, San Francisco included immediate confiscation in the deal: Anyone who has a handgun must surrender it to the police by April. The only people allowed to possess these firearms will be police, soldiers and security guards.

So what's wrong with this plan? Just about everything. Start with the fact that it appears to conflict with the state constitution, which gives the state sole jurisdiction over firearms regulation - a defect that doomed San Francisco's last handgun ban, passed in 1982.

Frank Zimring, a University of California, Berkeley law professor and a staunch supporter of gun control, says the new ordinance is a "sure loser" in court. Democratic U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who as mayor signed the 1982 law, saw no point in taking a position on this one because of its obviously fatal infirmity. Current Mayor Gavin Newsom admitted the initiative is "a public opinion poll."

Nor is there much point in city-by-city efforts against guns. Trying to ban handguns from one municipality in a nation awash in firearms is like trying to empty the water out of one section of the Pacific Ocean. The city has the means to close gun shops within its boundaries, but any San Franciscan who wants to make a purchase is within an easy drive of other suppliers.

The city can tell handgun owners to turn in their arms, just as Glendower, in Shakespeare's Henry IV, could call spirits from the vasty deep. The question, as Hotspur said, is, "Will they come when you do call for them?" There is a simple term for citizens who will abide by the law: law-abiding citizens. But law-abiding citizens, by definition, are not the kind to commit murder, if only because it happens to be illegal.

No, the sort of San Franciscans who commit murder are criminals. But people who are willing to flout the laws against murder will not meekly submit to laws against handgun possession. As Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck notes, the law doesn't really change anything on handgun ownership by criminals: They are already barred from possessing firearms.

So bad guys will keep their handguns, and only good guys will give theirs up. That may be good for the bad guys, but it looks bad for the good guys.

The ordinance is an attempt to reduce the city's firearms deaths, which rose to 88 last year from 69 in 2003, most of which involved pistols and revolvers. But an ordinance that seeks to reduce the murder rate by disarming those owners who are not criminals makes about as much sense as fighting alcoholism by prohibiting beer sales to Mormons. They are not the problem, and the people who are the problem will be unaffected.

The intuition behind the law is that anything reducing the prevalence of handgun ownership will reduce the frequency of handguns' misuse. Experience, however, demonstrates that more guns don't mean more crime. The number of guns in this country keeps rising, while the number of murders keeps falling. A 2004 report by the National Academy of Sciences said that in the United States, the evidence shows no connection between the rate of gun ownership and the murder rate.

Other cities have tried what San Francisco wants to try, only to reap disappointment. The murder rate dropped in Washington after it outlawed handguns in 1976 - but, as Mr. Kleck has shown, no more than it dropped in nearby Baltimore, which neglected to prohibit them. Chicago's 1982 ban didn't prevent corpses from piling up at a faster rate in the following years. Louisville, Ky., had its handgun ordinance overturned by the state, and then saw bloodshed subside.

San Franciscans may fantasize that passing a law to eliminate handguns will make them safer. Reality, however, will have the last word.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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