Story updated 2/25/2011 at 7:56pm.
In responsible hands, a firearm can provide solid home security and make feasible for an experienced wielder impressive feats of showmanship. However, in the wrong hands a gun can end a life — or several lives — in just seconds. With every shot, the balance between the costs and benefits of private gun ownership is upset.
In the wake of the Tucson, Ariz. shooting — which killed six, including UC Santa Cruz graduate Gabriel Zimmerman — many have attributed the tragedy to a gaping hole in domestic gun control laws. From the congressional floor all the way down to the local police department, calls for change and action have rippled across the nation.
“Obviously, a gun can’t fire without a person behind it,” said Nina Salarno-Ashford, executive board member of Crime Victims United of California (CVUC), speaking for herself and not the organization, which does not have a formal stance on gun control.
Each year, tens of thousands of people are killed in the United States by acts of gun violence. So far this year, over 13,000 people have been shot or killed, according to death certificates collected by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. The deaths from the combined murders, suicides, accidents and schoolyard shootings have motivated a handful of states in the union to adopt stringent gun control laws.
But outside of the Northeast and California, firearms — handguns, shotguns, rifles, machine guns — are all controlled relatively loosely. In Arizona, for example, anyone over the age of 18 can acquire guns, in bulk, without a state-mandated background check, without being required to report if any of them should become lost or missing.
Kelly O’Brien, the fiancée of the late Gabriel Zimmerman, appeared on “Good Morning America” to voice her criticisms of the nation’s gun control policies.
“[The Tucson gunman] was only stopped when he ran out of bullets,” O’Brien said. “If not Gabe — other people could have been saved that day, absolutely more people could have not had the injuries they had to sustain.”
Yet precisely what change means and how it should be implemented is not entirely clear-cut.
Gun rights advocates and lawmakers in Congress — Democrat and Republican alike — are not certain about how federal gun control laws will change, if at all. Historically, Congress’ legislative response to headline shootings, such as the 1999 Columbine High School Massacre and the 2009 Fort Hood Shooting, has been minimal.
Despite Congress’ historically stagnant legislative response, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) are spearheading the adoption of stronger gun control laws. In a press conference in Riverside, Calif. on Jan. 19, Boxer named several gun control provisions within California that she would like to see enacted across the nation.
Not everyone, however, is keen about proposed additions to gun control, like Boxer’s provisions.
“Instead of passing laws, the legislators could look to fund the local tools that can help fight [gun violence],” said deputy police chief Steve Clark of the Santa Cruz Police Department. “Out of [shootings], we get bad legislation that puts law enforcement at the forefront of what is really a social issue.”
Among the list of provisions Boxer provided, which included measures to raise the legal age to purchase a handgun to 21 and implement registration paperwork at gun shows, was the reenactment of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004. Prior to its expiration, the federal assault weapons ban had outlawed the commercial sale of high capacity magazines like the ones the Tucson gunman used.
“We have so many freedoms in this nation, but those freedoms must come with a sense of individual responsibility,” Boxer said at the conference. “If we don’t act responsibly, we threaten our rights and freedoms. I also believe we should look at sensible gun laws — the kind we have here in California — that give people their gun-ownership rights while also preventing the sale of guns to criminals, people with serious mental illnesses and people who abuse a spouse or partner.”
The sentiment is shared by O’Brien, who rejected the idea of immunity that the Second Amendment has provided against gun control.
“Everything, within reason, should have limits,” O’Brien said. “You can’t go into a theater and yell, ‘Fire,’ but we still have freedom of speech. With every right comes responsibilities.”
A strong opposition, however, has been brought to bear against the agendas of gun control advocates like Boxer and O’Brien. Ray del Valle, a Monterey County gunsmith, said stronger gun control does not directly translate to stopping gun violence. For del Valle, the only people who respect gun control are law-abiding citizens.
“[The Tucson gunman] was a complete nut job,” del Valle said. “Do you think any number of gun control laws would have stopped him from setting out what he meant to do? Of course not. There were guys there — they had concealed weapons — and they did the responsible thing in not pulling their guns when the shooting started happening. They were worried about shooting someone else.”
At the national level, the National Rifle Association has won significant victories in Supreme Court hearings against gun control. In 2008, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in District of Columbia v. Heller to allow individuals to own a loaded handgun for personal use. In 2010, the NRA won again in a 5-4 decision in McDonald v. Chicago. The case, which overturned several local laws in Chicago, has since cast doubt on the government’s ability to put into place limitations on the Second Amendment.
More locally, the NRA has combined efforts with the California Rifle and Pistol Association (LAP) to overturn California state gun control law. Their most recent success came on Jan. 19, when a Fresno Court ruled AB962 to be “unconstitutionally vague.” The law would have banned all mail-order ammunition and required a record of sales for all handgun ammunition sold. However, precisely what qualified as “handgun ammunition” puzzled both police and licensed arms dealers, as many of the thousands of bullets produced worldwide are interchangeable among handguns, rifles and other firearms.
In a series of interviews conducted over phone calls and e-mails, Clint Monfort, one of the LAP lawyers who helped overturn AB962, revealed the extent to which gun control laws are battled. Monfort said the LAP is actively litigating numerous cases at the state and local levels.
“[We are] currently preparing an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for this lawsuit challenging San Diego’s strict requirements for obtaining a [conceal and carry weapons permit],” Monfort said in an e-mail. “This case may resolve the legal question of whether the right ‘to bear arms’ means a right to carry a handgun outside the home.”
The LAP has successfully rescinded bans on handguns in public housing in San Francisco, challenged broad search-and-seizure warrants issued by Los Angeles police, and opposed various ordinances in Desert Hot Springs, Fairfield, Long Beach and Santa Clara.
Despite the overwhelming opposition from gun advocacy groups, there is still a strong push for “sensible” gun control laws by politicians and victims alike.
“Most people own handguns for self-defense, and there’s nothing you can do with 10 bullets that you can’t do with 30,” said O’Brien, who was engaged to the late Gabriel Zimmerman. “It’s so sad to see 19 people gunned down in 15 seconds by these high-capacity clips.”
But the devil is in the details, and the details of gun control are in the paperwork. So how strong are gun control laws?
“The federal paperwork never goes away,” Chris Gillespie, owner of Markley’s Indoor Range and Gun Shop in Watsonville, said. “We never, ever, ever get rid of our federal paperwork. We get audited once a year by [the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)], and not once have we ever come up empty-handed.”
At its basic level, acquiring a firearm legally through a federally licensed dealer requires filling out an ATF 4473 form. The form takes note of the buyer’s name, address, date of birth, photo ID and an affidavit stating the buyer is eligible to purchase firearms under federal law in the first place. Additionally, the firearm’s make, model and serial number are also recorded.
Beyond this, states, counties and cities occasionally possess additional forms of legislation demanding stricter records be kept. In the state of California, which is widely recognized as possessing some of the most stringent gun control laws in the nation, the sale of a handgun would require additional records of sale. These include the buyer’s thumbprint, date of sale and proof of lock or safety devices.
This process occurs for each of the 3,000 to 4,000 guns Gillespie sells annually to his clients — paperwork he is legally obligated to retain record of for the entire duration of his career as a firearms salesman.
The paperwork doesn’t end there. In order for Gillespie to remain in business, he must annually update his certificate of eligibility (COE) to possess a firearm, California firearms dealer (CFD) license, federal firearms license, local business license, handgun safety certificate instructor card, as well as licenses to possess firearms, ammunition, and equipment that he may only sell to law enforcement.
For del Valle, a Monterey County gunsmith, the red tape ultimately is more of a hindrance than anything else.
“I’ve got piles of paperwork over here. I spend 95 percent of my time just dealing with it, and maybe get one to two hours of actual time to craft,” del Valle said. “I’ve had to hire some people just to handle all of it. Look, I don’t think you’ll find a better way [than gun control] to stop acts of gun violence, but as it is, they don’t work.”
Many gun enthusiasts, salesmen and even law enforcement agree that there are shortcomings to gun control legislation in preventing acts of gun-related violence. Separate reports filed by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2003 and the National Research Council in 2004 — both institutions that have counseled the federal government on policy issues — stated that there was insufficient evidence to suggest that gun control measures were effective.
Gillespie said some gun control laws “might as well be a moot point.”
“Look, I’ll do whatever it takes — whatever paperwork they want me to do, I’ll do it — when it comes to controlling access to guns,” Gillespie said. “Felons, the criminally insane — they shouldn’t have guns, I wholeheartedly agree. But people forget that laws don’t apply to criminals. A law might restrict a certain type of gun or magazine, but for someone who is intent on doing something bad, they’ll find a way.”
Despite California gun laws, which include a ban on assault weapons and require local police departments to approve all concealed weapons permits, the acquisition of firearms illegally is not difficult.
Santa Cruz has its share of problems with illegal arms trafficking, local deputy police chief Steve Clark said.
“Gun control is just a Band-Aid,” Clark said. “You can drive across state lines and get guns. You can buy guns through some guy with a squeaky-clean record. Many gangs here have weapons caches stashed around the county. We’re seeing the same guns reappearing.”
Straw purchasing, or the purchase of a firearm by someone who can legally do so only to hand the gun over to someone who legally cannot purchase a firearm, is a common problem for law enforcement. Additionally, with most of the responsibility of gun control turned over to state legislators, the diversity in gun control laws from state to state makes trafficking all the easier. What may be illegal to purchase in California could be, and probably is, perfectly legal in Ohio, Nevada and Arizona.
“We had a guy robbing banks a little while back,” Clark said. “One day he appears and we see he’s wielding a TEC-9 [submachine gun] and we’re like, ‘Holy smokes, where’d he get that?’ Turns out he was able to buy it through a newspaper ad in Vegas, where he was blowing off the money he stole.”
The National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the federal background checking system that handles all 4473 forms, is often able to catch and deny purchases to those who have been “adjudicated as a mental defective,” have felony convictions and other reasons. However, there is still a major problem: disarming gun owners who acquired their firearms legally, only to later lose their right to possess a gun, for reasons such as committing a felony.
Unlike any other state, however, California has an automated system — the Armed Prohibited Persons System — in place to notify local authorities if or when such a change in status should occur. The system, however, is not without its shortcomings. As a state-operated system, it relies on the supplemental state paperwork. However, the state does not typically keep records of most rifle and shotgun purchases, creating significant gaps in state records. Additionally, with names added daily to a list that includes over 18,000 people, local law enforcement is hard-pressed to keep up.
“Among other things, you need proactive law enforcement to stop gun violence from happening,” Markley’s gun shop owner Gillespie said. “Look at how low the police department is cut down to on their budget. Even with the tools available, they’re understaffed.”
Another fault exists at the judicial level. Sgt. Dan Flippo of the SCPD said gun charges can serve as a disposable bargaining chip for judges to convict plaintiffs on more serious offenses.
“Usually there has to be some cooperation between the state and federal levels in order to bump up charges,” Flippo said. “If they get convicted of a federal charge, they’d be done for life. But for these smaller sentences — anything smaller than a federal charge — if they’re not stuck with the gun charge, they could later walk out and get a firearm still.”
Flying in the face of the automated systems, despite the combined might of the federal and state legislatures and the cries from those victimized by gun violence, firearms continue to find their way into the hands of the emotionally distraught, the mentally unstable, and the criminally capable.
“I’m not anti-gun control,” said SCPD deputy police chief Clark. “Gun control does have its merits — it does stop some people from getting a hold of one. But we haven’t seen gun control stop gun violence.”
So what can stop gun violence?
“The question is deeper than that,” Clark said.
Clark said the solution “isn’t around gun control but community.”
“We’ve got to work together,” Clark said. “Gang violence, school shootings — this is community violence, and it’s larger than law enforcement. The community can’t be under the illusion that we can simply arrest away the problem.”
Markley’s gun shop owner Gillespie said an active citizenry is the strongest measure that can be made against gun violence.
“How do you stop shootings? Besides proactive law enforcement, you have to do what you can with your neighborhood,” he said. “An attentive citizenry is better than any knee-jerk reaction in the law.”
Within Santa Cruz, there are a number of community-led programs and initiatives that actively tackle gang violence and encourage at-risk children from succumbing to acts of gun violence.
One program, a combined effort between local schools and the SCPD, is the program PRIDE, or Personally Responsible Individual Development in Ethics. The program, a gang-prevention strategy initiated in May of last year, focuses on educating and mentoring “at-risk” middle school students. The program combines negative reinforcement through prison tours and talks from former gang members with positive reinforcement through success stories and local community leaders.
“PRIDE is about mentors and pointing kids in other directions than joining gangs,” Clark said. “The thug lifestyle has become glamorized and an established cultural norm. A kid may not be a card-carrying gang member, but looking the part is the first step. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and waddles like a duck, for all intensive purposes it’s probably a duck.”
Take Back Santa Cruz, founded in October 2009 by Analicia Cube, is another such program. The group, whose mission statement is to take a stand against drug dealing, violence, and other criminal activity, has attracted hundreds in its outdoor walk-outs — “positive loitering,” as Cube puts it — to reclaim Santa Cruz’s streets.
“We’re an anti-crime organization,” Cube said. “We’ll go out as a community together — neighbors, business owners, everyone — to let the drug dealers and gangsters know they’re not in control. We do whatever the community feels like it needs, even checking that the political leadership in Santa Cruz is doing things that we feel are about safety.”
The collaborative efforts between the politicians, law enforcement and local communities are what make for the strongest defense against gun violence, Cube said.
“It has to be a combination effort,” Cube said. “The community alone isn’t going to solve gun violence. The law itself can’t solve it. The politicians can’t solve it. We all need to be a part of the solution. We can have as many laws as you want, but it’s going to have to come through the actions and voices of many for gang violence and gun violence to come to an end.”
For Cube, such a combination effort is not a far-fetched idea. Despite the challenges, Santa Cruz’s local community efforts offers a window into how the problem may be addressed across the country.
“I’m seeing a stronger collaborative effort between the police, city council and the community than ever before,” Cube said. “I’m excited about it, I’m hopeful, and I believe. We’re going to keep doing what we can. Is it perfect? No. But I’m seeing a lot of positive action to take down gun violence.”