Way of the gun
City Hall and local businesses square off over gun control
For Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty, it was a series of gun crimes and gun scares in his district that prompted him to try and tighten local gun-control laws.
In the fall of last year, “a 13-year-old kid killed a pregnant lady in my district,” McCarty explained. Around the same time, Police Chief Albert Najera was briefing McCarty on crime in the city and told him that fare sweeps on light rail had netted several teenagers with firearms. “I just started thinking, ‘My God, what is happening? Where are these kids getting these guns?’”
That’s hard to say, explained Captain James Maccoun with the Sacramento Police Department. But he breaks crime guns down into three main groups. There are what he calls the “community crime guns,” the pieces that get passed around from criminal to criminal. There are the whole class of firearms stolen from law-abiding citizens, circulating and waiting to be used in a crime. Then there are the “straw buyers,” the unsavory middlemen who legally purchase guns and then illegally sell them to people who can’t buy firearms because of previous criminal convictions.
When a gun from the latter group turns up connected to a crime, police often can track it back to the middleman. But the problem is that when the gun owner is asked about the piece, he routinely will tell officers, “Oh, it got stolen a while back.” Even if the police strongly suspect he’s lying, there’s not a lot they can do about it. They can ask why he didn’t report it stolen, but not reporting a theft is not a crime. “It happens quite a bit,” Maccoun explained.
That’s why McCarty has introduced an ordinance making it a misdemeanor not to report a stolen or lost firearm within 48 hours of discovering that it’s missing. The hope is that the reporting law will help police investigators get a jump on tracking down stolen guns while helping to discourage straw buyers.
“It’s not a panacea,” McCarty said, “but it closes a loophole that makes the illegal gun trade a lot easier.”
The proposed ordinance frustrates hunters and Second Amendment devotees, however.
“We want all of our guys to report the loss or theft of a firearm,” said Jason Rhine, a lobbyist with the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, a coalition of hunting and conservation organizations. But adding the reporting requirements could “make criminals out of victims,” according to Rhine. For example, he explained a person who made a good-faith effort to report stolen guns also might make a mistake in the reporting process. A hunter who owns a collection of guns might report five of them stolen, but overlook the sixth one. “It’s so open-ended, we just don’t want our guys caught up in criminal penalties when they didn’t do anything wrong,” Rhine said.
Supporters of the reporting law say that law-abiding citizens have no reason to fret. The law says a person must not “knowingly or negligently” fail to report a missing gun. “There’s a reasonableness standard built into the law to protect those people,” said Laura Cutilletta with the Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco-based organization that is supporting McCarty’s gun-control efforts. “If there’s a reasonable explanation, they’ll get off.”
Of course, guns don’t really kill people, bullets do. And that’s where a second McCarty ordinance comes in. Right now, you have to be age 18 or older to buy rifle ammunition. For handgun ammunition, it’s 21—sort of like cigarettes and beer. If you can’t legally own or purchase a gun—because you have a criminal record, for example—then the law says you can’t legally own or purchase bullets, either. But for practical purposes it doesn’t much matter if you’ve been convicted of a crime, because sellers aren’t required to do a background check for ammo purchases.
McCarty’s ordinance would require the purchaser of ammunition to give up personal information—name, address, brand of ammunition and a thumbprint—every time they buy a box of bullets or shells.
It wouldn’t prevent someone who isn’t supposed to buy bullets from doing so, but that person could be caught later. In fact, Maccoun said that in Los Angeles, where a similar law has been on the books for nearly a decade, about 3 percent of ammunition buyers listed on ammo logs have been people who aren’t allowed to own guns. “We really look at these as investigative tools,” Maccoun said. “We’re looking at any way we can to prevent people from illegally possessing guns.”
Area gun-shop owners counter that the new law won’t do much to prevent crime but will harass law-abiding gun owners.
“It’s just a feel-good, anti-business ordinance that’s not going to do any good,” said Don, manager of the River City Gun Exchange on Fruitridge Avenue. Don insisted that his last name not be used.
He argued that anybody who wanted to get around the law could just drive to a gun dealer in another part of the county, sometimes just a few blocks outside the Sacramento city limits. And he expects that some of his customers will stop buying ammo inside the city limits, just on principle. “It’s an invasion of privacy. Some people will be ok with it, but some of my customers have told me ‘when this goes into effect, you won’t be seeing me around anymore.’” And if his customers start buying ammo at other shops in the county, he said chances are good he’ll lose their business on big-ticket items, as well.
“I don’t think they really care what happens to the businesses. They’re just concerned about having a vote that makes them look tough on crime.”
Even though Maccoun estimates that the law would add about two minutes to an ammunition purchase, the proposed rule has annoyed hunting groups. “It’s just one more burden on the wrong folks,” said Robert McLandress with the California Waterfowl Association. Most hunters, he said, already provide detailed personal information when purchasing firearms or applying for hunting permits. The ammo-log rules would require an avid hunter to fill out forms several times over the course of the hunting season. “It’s becoming more and more difficult for people to take up hunting and outdoor sports, and to enjoy the outdoors.”
But supporters of the new laws argue that the burden is a small one. Amanda Wilcox lost her daughter Laura in 2001, when a mentally ill man shot her to death at the Nevada City outpatient mental-health clinic where Laura worked. “If you are a law-abiding citizen, you aren’t going to be impacted beyond a little extra time and inconvenience,” Wilcox said. Today, Amanda and her husband, Nick, head up the local chapter of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and they are strong supporters of the proposed Sacramento ordinances. “Better a little red tape than a lot of yellow crime tape,” said Wilcox.
The Sacramento City Council is expected to vote on both ordinances on August 9.