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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Public Safety : Can we agree on down-to-earth steps to ensure that community-based policing actually will work? : Success Story : Taking Aim at Oakland's Guns

July 17, 1994

Two years after the Oakland City Council passed an ordinance regulating firearms dealers, more than half of the city's small gun sellers have closed up shop, a personal victory for police Sgt. Rob Stewart.

Stewart says he is not an anti-gun activist, and he sure doesn't want the National Rifle Assn. on his back. He just became concerned when investigations of several crimes led him to discover that gun dealers were virtually unregulated locally: of 118 federally licensed dealers in Oakland, only six carried city permits. Many of the sales outlets were small, some even operating out of homes.

Stewart figured that, in the least, lack of local oversight might make some of them sloppy bookkeepers. At worst, he worried they could be taking advantage of their freedom to illegally supply guns to gang members and other criminals.

"Obviously, there are a number of people that have firearms dealers' licenses that are nice guys--they are collectors, they obey the law," Stewart said. "The problem is neither the Police Department nor the feds have the manpower to go in and ensure compliance with local, state and federal laws."

A police sting operation confirmed Stewart's worst fears.

Two gun dealers were selected at random from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms licensee list. One had sold 750 guns in the previous five years but had no record of the buyers, as required by the bureau. The other establishment sold 125 guns to the two convicted felons sent in undercover by police, a violation of state law. Stewart said the dealer foiled the state criminal record review, required in all gun sales, by using names of dead people he asked the felons to copy from tombstones in a nearby graveyard.

Stewart took his concerns to the City Council, which approved an ordinance regulating gun sales outlets. It restricts outlets to commercial areas and requires a $750 permit application fee, a $500 annual renewal fee, extensive background checks of both owners and sales personnel and numerous security measures at the sales site.

The ordinance also called for a $300,000 boost in the police budget to pay for administration. So far, that money has not been allocated, but Stewart managed to begin the program anyway by shifting officers part-time from other duties.

If full funding materializes this summer, as promised, Stewart hopes to be able to elevate the program beyond basic regulation and enforcement. He wants to build an improved tracking program for guns that would allow officers to trace firearms used in crimes to their original owners and sellers and to shift some of the blame to those sources.

"I was a homicide detective for years, and you start to say, 'How can we improve our community?' " he said. "We're not going to stop murders with this program, but we want to at least give people a fair chance not to get shot when these guns end up in the hands of gang bangers."

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