CityFixer

How a Low-Crime City Became the New Center of America's Gun Debate

Sunnyvale doesn't have much of a gun violence problem. But the NRA is worried anyway.

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SUNNYVALE, Calif.—Legend has it that in 1898, builder W.E. Crossman peered out at the 200 acres of fields he’d purchased in California’s Santa Clara Valley, noted the sun shining overhead and declared, “Let’s call it Sunnyvale.”

The name stuck. Over time, Sunnyvale transformed from a swath of orchards and farms to a high-tech magnet of about 140,000 residents in the thick of Silicon Valley. Situated just miles from San Jose, its reputation hinges on high quality of life and low crime. Aeronautics giant Lockheed Martin is the largest employer, Yahoo’s headquarters are based here, and Nokia recently set up its North American base of operations downtown.

Lately, though, Sunnyvale has become known for something far less intuitive than sunshine and software developers: gun control. In November, 66 percent of voters passed Measure C, a ballot initiative considered to be one of the most progressive anti-gun laws ever proposed anywhere in the United States. It addresses a slew of gun-related issues from large-capacity magazines to ammunitions registration to required reporting of lost or stolen weapons.

Measure C’s passage has ignited a fiery debate over the proper place of cities in regulating gun ownership. Sunnyvale is currently fending off lawsuits by powerful pro-gun groups the National Rifle Association and the National Sports Shooting Foundation, who say the law violates the Second Amendment. Meanwhile, the citizens group behind the measure continues to argue the Bay Area city was merely taking matters into its own hands to safeguard its citizens against gun violence.

Sunnyvale doesn’t have much of a gun violence problem. But the stakes here for lobbying groups like the NRA couldn’t be higher. Their fear? That even though Congress has failed to act, this could be the start of more and more municipalities going out on their own on gun control.

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Sunnyvale’s Measure C does four things.

It requires gun owners to notify police within 48 hours when a registered firearm has gone missing or is stolen. It makes it mandatory for citizens to lock up their guns properly inside their homes. Gun dealers, in the same way that they must keep records of gun purchasers, have to keep records of customers who buy ammunition from them for two years. And, most controversially, the law forbids residents from owning magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

None of the components of Measure C are so radical that other jurisdictions aren’t taking similar steps, especially in major metropolitan centers across California. For example, Los Angeles and San Francisco are currently tackling ammunitions record-keeping, too.

“Sunnyvale passing all of these things together in one ballot is what really makes it cutting edge,” says Cody Jacobs, staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Jacobs’s organization was formed in the aftermath of a 1993 shooting at a San Francisco law firm in which a gunman opened fire, killing nine, including himself.

In the case of Sunnyvale, the law center helped to draft the ballot measure, and when threats of lawsuits and then actual suits [PDF] were filed late in 2013, challenging Measure C, the group also secured pro bono counsel for the city so it didn’t need to spend taxpayer dollars on legal fees.

The NRA’s suit, which is currently in federal court, objects to the portion of the ordinance dealing with magazines. The NRA’s West Coast lawyer, Chuck Michel, did not respond to requests for an interview for this story, but has been quoted elsewhere arguing that limiting magazine purchases inhibits a citizen’s ability to defend themselves.

"If someone is breaking into your house, they are on the offensive, they have the opportunity to prepare," Michel told the San Jose Mercury News. "If you have to pull the trigger, odds are in a situation like that you're going to miss a few. Having the extra rounds in that magazine can be the difference between life and death when you're defending yourself and your family.”

Jacobs counters that California law already bans the sale of magazines that hold upwards of 10 rounds. Measure C just closes the gap by making it illegal to own these magazines as well. That way, firearms with high-capacity magazines can’t be brought in from a neighboring state.

Pia Carusone is executive director of Americans for Responsible Solutions, the national organization born out of the aftermath of the Newtown shooting. Its founders include former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, herself a mass shooting victim, along with her husband, Mark Kelly, and many of her staffers. Americans for Responsible Solutions considers itself pro-gun, yet is working to be a bipartisan change agent in lowering gun violence. It’s in favor of what it calls “common-sense” measures, such as background checks.

On the issue of magazines, Carusone believes there’s wide agreement around a limit. The specific numerical amount, though, is something she thinks should be part of a wider discussion on firearms hardware and ownership.

“Having a smaller magazine is safer because the number of times you have to reload, for an average civilian, the better, because they’re not at war,” she says. “It’s hard to come up with an example where someone needed more than 12 or 15 bullets to prevent a crime.”

The other major point of contention within Measure C deals with keeping track of ammunition purchases. The National Sports Shooting Foundation, a leading trade association, jointly filed suit with Sunnyvale’s largest gun dealer in an attempt to put the brakes on that stipulation.

Lawrence Keane, the NSSF’s senior vice president and general counsel, argues gun retailers are already losing business because customers don’t want to jump through another hoop.

“I have an affidavit in the case indicating that some customers are saying they’ll leave the city and purchase ammunition elsewhere,” Keane says.

Jacobs admits that because ammunition is completely unregulated at the federal level and in most states, Sunnyvale’s efforts in this area are “kind of a big deal.”

But, he argues, “if you keep records of gun sales, why not also keep track of ammunition sales?” he says. “After all, ammunition is what makes a gun deadly.”

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Sunnyvale resident Don Veith vividly recalls watching, in horror, television news coverage of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012. He had no personal connection to the attack, yet he says the events of that day compelled him to begin working to combat the level of gun violence the tragedy personified.

“I was just appalled. I was angry. I wanted to do something,” he says. “We all felt that way. We didn’t quite know what to do, though.”

Veith wrote a letter to Sunnyvale Mayor Tony Spitaleri, asking him to join Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the bipartisan coalition started by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. He also went door to door and got 250 neighbors to sign a petition. The signatures got Spitaleri’s attention.

What followed was a flurry of activity, especially over the summer. Working with a group of local activists including Veith, Spitaleri started with a list of 18 potential gun safety measures that could be made and added to an ordinance. The list was whittled down to four based on what seemed most likely to be adopted.

Spitaleri says his original intention was to have the City Council pass an ordinance or to add gun control measures to the city’s charter. But it was an election year, and there was disagreement among individual council members over whether passing any gun regulations would be "too soon" after Newtown. Instead, the council suggested the mayor work with the schools on preventative measures. He tried that, but the problem, he says, was most school administrators were busy with other matters. Just one school responded to his overtures at all.

That’s when the strategy shifted to a ballot measure. When the count came in, two-thirds of Sunnyvale voters were in favor of Measure C, far surpassing the organizers’ hopes.

It was an impressive grassroots victory. For Spitaleri, though, there’s a lingering question he’s asked by both Sunnyvale residents and outside observers: Why did this happen in Sunnyvale, of all places?

In 2009, Forbes dubbed Sunnyvale the seventh safest city in America. Incidents of violence are incredibly uncommon. The one major blemish on the city’s crime history is a 1988 incident in which Richard Farley, a former employee of high-tech firm Electromagnetic Systems Laboratory, showed up to his former workplace with seven guns — including a 12-gauge semi-automatic shotgun, a rifle, revolver and a pistol — and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. Farley shot and killed seven people and wounded four others, including a female co-worker who had taken out a restraining order against him. He’s now on death row at San Quentin, and his crime was the subject of the 1993 TV movie I Can Make You Love Me. More recently, in 2011, Sunnyvale became the scene of a manhunt connected to a mass shooting that originated in nearby Cupertino. In that incident, a disgruntled worker shot nine coworkers at a cement quarry and then fled. During the manhunt, sheriff's deputies, SWAT teams and hundreds of officers from surrounding law enforcement agencies cordoned off the Sunnyvale neighborhood where the suspect's car was found abandoned.

According to Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety statistics on violent crime, between 1993 and 2013, there were fewer than 40 homicides total within city limits. That breaks down to just a few reported homicides per year on average. Last year saw four homicides total, and that’s the highest annual total in 20 years. Four times during the same span there were entire years without a single reported killing. Even the total number of crime incidents is low—and dropping. In 2013, Sunnyvale law enforcement recorded 2,552 total crimes. Of those, more than 2,400 were property crimes. That’s half the amount of overall incidents in 1994, which was the highest sum in the past two decades.

“We have a low crime rate, but so did Newtown. So did Columbine,” says Spitaleri.

Sally Lieber, a former California State Assembly member and the former mayor of neighboring Mountain View, became the city’s point person on voter outreach and developing strategies to ensure the ballot measure passed. She, like Spitaleri, sees Sunnyvale as an ideal place to take action on gun violence.

“It’s kind of every town, a sort of stand-in city. From my perspective it was a good city to do the measure in because it’s representative of every place and what other communities could aspire to,” she says.

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Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously called states the “laboratories of democracy.”

Lieber sees Measure C as that precise type of experiment, only at the local level. The group of activists in Sunnyvale, and Spitaleri, are now hearing from cities and community groups who want to enact gun control measures in their jurisdictions.

“We very much want to take this to other cities, offer up the technical support, help other cities profit from what we learned,” Lieber says. In California, cities such as San Rafael, San Mateo, and Los Gatos have already reached out to Sunnyvale, according to Spitaleri.

“More and more [cities] are taking matters into their own hands,” says John Feinblatt, chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns. “We’re seeing this in a number of diverse jurisdictions all across the country.”

For example, Travis, Texas, recently enacted legislation to require background checks at gun shows. In Tucson, where Giffords was shot, the city council passed a firearms regulation in the spring aimed at lost and stolen guns, requiring weapons owners to report them missing within 48 hours or face fines.

At the same time, the NRA and the NSSF aren’t standing idly by. In Sunnyvale, officials were in no way surprised about the filing of lawsuits because the NRA, in particular, had threatened to take the city to court as soon as the mayor began speaking publicly about Measure C. The NRA has also sued the city of San Francisco and a host of other municipalities for their gun measures.

“We don’t think they have much of a case,” Jacbos says. “This is not really a ‘Sky is falling’ on the 2nd Amendment situation like they’re portraying.”

Last month, a federal judge ruled that the NRA suits against Sunnyvale and San Francisco could not be consolidated into one. Both cases are scheduled to be heard this month, with rulings later in the spring.

Even beyond the threat of lawsuits, a major hurdle that needs to be cleared in many states is preemption. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, close to 40 states have rules in place that prevent local governments from superseding state governments’ decisions on gun issues. California gives its localities more leeway. Feinblatt anticipates a surge in challenges to preemption laws, which would make way for even more aggressive action by city governments in a lot more states.

“Legislators often make the decision to do what’s politically safe rather than what’s safe for constituents. That’s not the case at the local [level],” he says. “States and localities are the leaders.”

Top image: LukaTDB/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Dena Levitz is a digital strategist and freelance writer in Washington D.C. whose work has appeared in such publications as the Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Bloomberg Businessweek, and The Crime Report.