Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

San Francisco Weighs Merits of Handgun Ban ; A Bold Ballot Initiative Could Make the City a Pioneer in Gun Control. but Will It Cut Crime, or Simply Infuriate the Gun Lobby?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

San Francisco Weighs Merits of Handgun Ban ; A Bold Ballot Initiative Could Make the City a Pioneer in Gun Control. but Will It Cut Crime, or Simply Infuriate the Gun Lobby?

Article excerpt

In a city so often intent on making brash political statements, Chris Daly's tone is decidedly practical.

Last year, when the number of homicides nationwide fell unexpectedly and dramatically, murders in San Francisco surged. The district attorney called it an epidemic, police targeted new gang activity, and the mayor went door-to-door in one of the city's roughest neighborhoods to plead for calm - all to no avail.

So, as a member of the Board of Supervisors, Mr. Daly got serious. He has proposed a ban on handguns in the city, prohibiting any resident from making, buying, or even owning them. If approved by voters this fall, the ballot measure would give San Francisco the toughest handgun laws of any major city in the United States.

Daly insists that his proposal is simply about making San Francisco safer - being the vanguard of gun control is just a fringe benefit. Yet most experts are not convinced that handgun bans have any significant effect on crime, and some add that the ban's most likely outcome would be to provoke the national gun lobby in the same way that San Francisco's gay marriages riled cultural conservatives.

Once again, this most liberal of cities stands poised to take the lead on one of the most controversial areas of public policy, rousing to action both those who would follow sout and those who would oppose such measures.

"Laws like this have a symbolic meaning, but no effect other than to keep the issue inflamed," says William Vizzard, author of "Shots in the Dark: Politics, Policy, and Symbolism of Gun Control."

On one hand, San Francisco's national influence on the topic of gun control is limited, given that only 11 states allow cities to devise gun laws. Yet cities - and particularly California cities - have been the incubators for some of the most far-reaching gun- control laws to spread across the country, including assault- weapons bans and monthly limits on how many guns one person can purchase.

Whether the handgun ban would be a useful addition to this suite of gun-control laws, however, is uncertain. Two major US cities - Washington and Chicago - have had similar handgun bans in place for more than 20 years. Daly cites a 1991 study by the New England Journal of Medicine that suggests that the ban in Washington had an effect on violent crime in the years immediately after it began in 1976.

Moreover, his plan is even tougher, requiring residents who own guns to turn them in - the Washington and Chicago plans had clauses that allowed those who owned guns before the ban to keep them.

"With fewer handguns in the city, criminals will be much less likely to get their hands on one," says Daly, noting that handguns were involved in more than 60 percent of last year's 88 murders here.

The long-term tends, though, have not been positive. …

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