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Shotgun News, February 1, 2005, pp. 20-21

Showing Their True Colors

During debates about gun control, supporters of whatever the scheme of the moment is will often deny that the goal is gun prohibition. "We're just trying to control guns--keep them out of the wrong hands. We aren't trying to ban guns." Indeed, before Handgun Control, Inc. changed their name to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, they used to use a letterhead that talked about keeping guns "out of the wrong hands"--and even today, I hear gun control advocates distance themselves from HCI's second chairman, who directly stated in 1976 that the long-term goal was a ban on handgun ownership.1 It is nice when advocates of gun "control" show their true colors--as they have just done in San Francisco.

In San Francisco, five county supervisors (the equivalent of a county commissioner in many other parts of the country) can put an initiative on the county ballot--and they have done so. Their proposal is a complete ban on private ownership of handguns in San Francisco, with an exemption for police officers, anyone "actually employed and engaged in protecting and preserving property or life within the scope of his or her employment," and the military. Unlike the 1982 attempt by San Francisco to ban handguns, this measure appears not to exempt holders of California concealed weapon permits. 2

The list of exemption is not too terribly surprising. Police officers work for the government and are therefore trustworthy in a way that you or I obviously are not. The military is exempted from the ban. How nice: San Francisco still recognizes that they are part of the United States--or at least knows that invading San Francisco would be much easier than invading Iraq. Security guards work for corporations, protecting corporate assets, which are important enough to allow an exception to the ban; you or I protecting ourselves from robbery, rape, or murder--well, we're just not important enough for an exception, are we?

This proposal is not a ban on carrying handguns--California law already requires a license to carry concealed,3 prohibits open carry of loaded firearms in urban public places,4 and severely restricts under what conditions you can transport a gun in your car.5 (In theory, you can still openly carry an unloaded firearm in California cities. Let us know where to send the flowers.) This initiative would ban having a handgun in your own home or business.

I just love the euphemisms that these totalitarian thugs use. Bill Barnes, who works for one of the county supervisors responsible for this initiative, explained that, "The hope is twofold, that officers will have an opportunity to interact with folks and if they have a handgun, that will be reason enough to confiscate it." I love that: "an opportunity to interact with folks...." What they mean is that if the police find someone with a handgun, they can confiscate it.

So where are these "interactions" going to take place? In your home. If San Francisco police arrest you right now, and they find a gun, they confiscate it. It is a rare moment indeed when a person gets a confiscated gun back in San Francisco--even if the D.A. does not file any charges. What this initiative means is that if the police come to your home because you are a victim of a crime--and they find a handgun--they'll confiscate it. You will lose your handgun, probably go to jail yourself, and be even less able to defend yourself next time. I would also expect that if you use a handgun in self-defense in San Francisco, you will be arrested and charged. Oh yes: because you were breaking the law by possessing a handgun, the criminal you shot will have a stronger position from which to sue you for injuring him.

Monstrous? Well, also in violation in California law, which is very clear on this subject. "No permit or license to purchase, own, possess, keep, or carry, either openly or concealed, shall be required of any citizen of the United States or legal resident over the age of 18 years who resides or is temporarily within this state," except for mental patients and convicted criminals, "to purchase, own, possess, keep, or carry, either openly or concealed, a pistol, revolver, or other firearm capable of being concealed upon the person within the citizen's or legal resident's place of residence, place of business, or on private property owned or lawfully possessed by the citizen or legal resident."6 Yet San Francisco thinks that they have the authority to completely prohibit possession at home of handguns!

The initiative won't just ban handgun possession. It will also ban sales of long guns and ammunition within San Francisco. Sure, you can drive into several adjoining counties to buy a shotgun and ammunition, but the message is very clear: "Guns are bad! We don't want them here!"

Those with long memories are probably aware that San Francisco tried to ban handguns once before, in 1982. Then Mayor (now U.S. Senator from California) Dianne Feinstein climbed onto the handgun ban cause after Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were murdered by a disgruntled former supervisor. The California Court of Appeals told San Francisco that this wasn't going to fly, because another provision of California law, Government Code § 53071, pre-empted local registration or licensing of gun ownership.7 So what makes San Francisco's supervisors think that they are going to get away with it this time?

Maybe they don't expect to win. After all, San Francisco is rather partial to breaking state law. You will recall a few months back, they decided that they had the authority to marry same-sex couples--contrary to state law. The California Supreme Court did not take kindly to this idea, and told them that, contrary to what San Francisco might want to believe, they are still part of California, and must conform to California laws. This should have been obvious to even the most dim-witted of politicians--just like the illegal nature of this initiative that San Francisco voters will be asked to approve next year.

What really amazes me about this initiative is not just its illegality, but also its stupidity. If very, very restrictive local ordinances for handguns were a successful strategy for reducing violent crime, Washington, DC would be one of America's safest cities. Chicago, which has effectively banned new handguns in the city for more than twenty years, by refusing to accept handgun registration forms, would also be a very nice place.

It is very clear--even to many gun control advocates--that local restrictive handgun ordinances do not work. Gun control advocates sometimes insist that the problem is national, and only a national law will make any real difference. There are sound reasons to believe that even a national ban wouldn't make much of a difference, but at least when gun control advocates insist that local measures won't make much of a difference, they are on to something. As long as a criminal can drive ten miles to buy a handgun, a city ordinance accomplishes nothing to disarm criminals. So who is this measure intended to disarm? The victims.

Think long and hard about this. If the city where you live passed a complete ban on handguns, how would it change your behavior? Someone who buys a handgun in the next town over because he intends to commit a bank robbery, or a murder, isn't going to be much influenced by the local ban. Whatever the punishment is for illegal possession of a handgun pales into insignificance compared to the punishment for murder or robbery. The city handgun ban won't deter that criminal. At best, it makes it a bit easier for the police to arrest the criminal if they happen to find him in possession of a handgun.

What effect would such a ban have on a law-abiding citizen? The law wouldn't prevent you from buying a handgun in another town. It wouldn't prevent you from continuing to own a handgun. What it would do is discourage you from using that handgun for self-defense. If you heard noises downstairs in the middle of the night, you would not pull out a handgun. What would happen if you shot a burglar in self-defense with a handgun? When the police arrived, they would arrest you for unlawful possession. Most handgun owners, hearing something go bump in the night, are going to use a long gun (if they have one).

I think that is the real goal here--to discourage law-abiding people from using handguns for home defense. As the number of defensive uses of handguns decline, gun control advocates can then argue, "See, handguns aren't very useful for self-defense, anyway." Even more importantly, people that shoot criminals get sent to jail--and increasingly, it is apparent that gun control advocates are really most interested in criminalizing self-defense, as they have effectively done in Britain.

I really want to believe that the voters of San Francisco will do the right thing, and vote this idiot initiative down. I really want to believe that the California courts will do the right thing, follow existing precedents, and overturn this initiative if the voters approve it. But my experiences living in California lead me to be skeptical of good sense from either group. Many Californians believe that they have a constitutional right to be exempt from reality--and initiatives like this are a good example.

Clayton E. Cramer is a software engineer and historian. His last book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger Press, 1999). His web site is

1 Richard Harris, "A Reporter at Large: Handguns," New Yorker, July 26, 1976, 53, 58.

2 Lisa Leff, "San Francisco supervisors propose sweeping gun ban," Associated Press, December 15, 2004, available at, last accessed December 22, 2004.

3 Cal. Penal Code § 12025.

4 Cal. Penal Code § 12031.

5 Cal. Penal Code § 12026.2.

6 California Penal Code § 12026(b).

7 Doe v. San Francisco, 136 Cal.App.3d 509 (1982), available at, last accessed December 22, 2004.