San Francisco takes small steps towards big idea of gun control


Mayor Edwin M Lee is a small grey man with a blinding smile when he uses it. Last Thursday Mr Lee did not choose to use it, as he was giving a press conference on reducing gun crime in San Francisco.

This came of course in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14th, in which 20 primary school children and seven adults died . The firearms were legally held – by the perpetrator’s mother.

By coincidence San Francisco’s latest gun amnesty had already been scheduled to start the following day, Saturday, December 15th. Run by charities and funded by a private donor, it offered $200 for every gun surrendered.

“Police officers checked that the guns were operative,” officer Michael Andraychak, a press spokesman for the police department, explained to The Irish Times. You could surrender and get paid for up to three guns. It was San Francisco’s most successful gun amnesty ever. “We hadn’t done one in about two years,” said Andraychak. “We got 163 handguns, 91 rifles and 36 shotguns. Yes, that is a lot of guns for a city that we reckon has a residential population of 700,000 to 800,000.”

The week before the Connecticut shootings I heard gunfire late one night in San Francisco, for the first time. It sounds higher and lighter than you would think.

On Thursday morning a collection of the surrendered guns lay on a table and we looked at them solemnly and touched them in a foolish way. Later Lee would be photographed with the guns. There were two or three TV crews present and we were all waiting for the speakers to start.

Lee was the smallest person in the line-up . Supervisor Malia Cohen, an African-American city councillor who has been working on this issue for a while because her constituents shoot and kill each other on a regular basis, she said, towered above Lee, in her boots and leggings. Dr Andre Campbell, a trauma surgeon at San Francisco General Hospital and also African-American, had worn his medical white coat to the press conference, and he was taller than Cohen.

Police chief Greg Suhr, who is Caucasian, has a shaved head and managed to be tall and wide at the same time. If this line-up looked like a snapshot of America then that was no accident – a lot of thought goes into these things, and the mayor’s office has a sophisticated communications team which is headed by an Irish woman, Christine Falvey.

The press conference was called in the police department’s special operations unit, an anonymous and slightly industrial building in the south of the city.

In the halls were framed photographs of groups of men, who looked pretty ordinary – one set looked like half a dozen hippies from the 1980s – and presumably these were undercover police officers posing for pictures. Back at the conference about 40 journalists were looking sombre in one of the building’s warehouses, just to the left of the truck belonging to the San Francisco bomb squad

The press conference had been called to announce a citywide ban on what it called extra-lethal hollow point ammunition, which is issued to the US military and law enforcement agencies. But the sale of hollow point ammunition is banned in San Francisco already. Lee and Cohen want to make it illegal to possess hollow point ammunition in San Francisco.

Cohen spoke about how she is weary of getting phone calls from the police or from the families of young men under 25 whose bodies had been destroyed by hollow-point ammunition.

“When they strike the victim it’s like a bomb going off inside the body,” said Campbell, referring to hollow point bullets. He has worked at San Francisco’s only trauma unit for 19 years. “The unique sound of a mother as she screams ‘My baby is dead. My baby is dead’ – I hope to never hear this sound again,” he said.

Yet things in San Francisco are getting better. In 2007 Campbell’s trauma unit saw 381 victims of gunfire. Last year it saw 182. The city’s attempts at limiting firearms have been opposed, on at least one occasion, by litigation funded by the National Rifle Association.

The other measure announced was that Lee and Cohen want to compel gun retailers to inform the police, at the time of purchase, whenever a customer buys more than 500 rounds of ammunition.

Lee paid tribute to his weightiest predecessor as mayor, Senator Diane Feinstein, who tried at a federal level to ban semi-automatic weapons of the type used in the Sandy Hook shootings. Lee said that that measure would be reintroduced in the new year.

Police chief Suhr announced that his department was retraining every SFPD officer in school safety tactics. He also said that his own gun had not been fired in 32 years on the job “except at target practice”. He seemed the most unabashed at the process, however timid, that was in train. “We’re coming together,” he said, “over a big idea – and that’s gun control”.

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