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 is not likely to work even if 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 allowed residents to keep weapons they already had, San Francisco included immediate confiscation: Anyone who now has a handgun must surrender it to the police by next April. Only police, soldiers and security guards will allowed to have these firearms.
So what’s wrong with this? Just about everything. To start, it seems 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.
University of California-Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring, a staunch gun-control supporter, says the new law 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 obvious fatal infirmity. 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 can 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. It affects only noncriminals.
So bad guys will keep their handguns, and only good guys will give up theirs. 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 from 69 in 2003 to 88 last year, most of which involved pistols and revolvers. But an ordinance seeking to reduce the murder rate by disarming owners who are not criminals makes about as much sense as fighting alcoholism by banning beer sales to Mormons. They are not the problem, and the people who are the problem will be serenely unaffected.
The intuition behind the law is that anything reducing handgun ownership will reduce their misuse. Experience, however, demonstrates more guns don’t mean more crime. The number of guns in this country keeps rising, while the number of murders keeps falling.
A 2003 report from the Centers for Disease Control noted some studies on gun controls found they reduced violence; others found they increased it. The panel threw up its hands, citing “insufficient evidence to determine effectiveness.”
Other cities have tried what San Francisco wants to try, only to reap disappointment. The murder rate dropped in Washington, D.C., after it outlawed handguns in 1976 — but, as Mr. Kleck has shown, no more than in nearby Baltimore, which did not prohibit them. Chicago’s 1982 ban didn’t prevent corpses from piling up faster in following years. Louisville, Ky., saw the state overturn its handgun ordinance, and then 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 nationally syndicated columnist.