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As San Francisco gun sales increase, officials have no means to track number of firearms

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Gun sales are expected to keep rising in response to gun control measures introduced by President Barack Obama after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • Gun sales are expected to keep rising in response to gun control measures introduced by President Barack Obama after the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

Gun sales in San Francisco are on the rise and are expected to keep increasing in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shooting late last year. Yet local gun controls leave law enforcement officials with no way of knowing how many firearms — legal or not — are in The City.

More than 1,000 handguns were legally purchased in San Francisco each year from 2007 to 2009, according to statistics provided by the California Department of Justice. Local sales then hit an all-time low in 2010. Two handgun purchases and 12 sales of “long guns,” shotguns or rifles, were recorded, according to state records, an anomaly some experts consider suspicious. Since then, reported sales of firearms have spiked again.

Through August of last year, the most recent data available, 478 handguns and at least 312 long guns were sold in San Francisco, according to Michelle Gregory, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

California’s gun control laws are among the very strictest in the U.S., and San Francisco’s are considered even tougher. Guns can only be purchased from a registered dealer or seller. There are three federally licensed firearm dealers here, but pawnshops and secondhand dealers with state licenses also can buy and sell guns.

The identities of state-licensed firearm merchants — and how many registered firearm dealers exist in a jurisdiction — are protected by law from public disclosure, Gregory said.

There also is no way to track how many long guns have been sold in San Francisco. Every time any firearm changes hands, the seller involved in the transaction is supposed to send a record to the state, called a “dealer record of sale.” Under California law, there is one DROS record per handgun sale, but multiple long guns may be sold on the same DROS record, according to Brandon Combs, executive director of the Calguns Foundation, a firearm-owner advocacy group.

A San Francisco resident can travel to the Peninsula or elsewhere in the state to buy a weapon. That purchase will be recorded in that municipality, but there will be no record of the firearm coming to The City.

The result is that, “There is no way to determine how many guns are in The City,” said Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department. In “every encounter with the public,” police have to assume a weapon could be present, he said.

Last week, President Barack Obama introduced sweeping new gun control measures in response to the massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators at an elementary school in Connecticut, and lawmakers such as U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., have voiced support for reinstating an assault weapons ban that expired in 2004.

Last year was one of the worst years for mass shootings in the nation’s history. A disgruntled former student reportedly killed seven people at Oakland’s Oikos University in April, and a man is accused of shooting 70 people, killing 12, at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., on July 20. Then Dec. 14, 28 people in total died in the Newtown incident.

All weapons used in those shootings were legally obtained.

Firearm sales are said to spike in election years because gun owners fear the possibility of new controls. The 2006 takeover of Congress by the Democratic Party might explain why more than 1,000 handguns were sold in San Francisco in 2007, 2008 and 2009, said Ken Walsh, deputy chairman of the Criminal Justice Department at San Francisco State University.

There also are more unregistered and unlicensed guns in California than ever before, Walsh said.

“Less people are registering their guns legally,” he said, offering that as a theory to explain why gun sales would inexplicably plummet in 2010.

But that theory was dismissed by Combs, who did admit the sales figures “look odd.”

“These are law-abiding people,” he said, “and they don’t want to lose their rights because they hate the regulatory system.”

Obtaining a concealed weapon permit is difficult in San Francisco

What do a retired Army major general, a famous judge and a jewelry dealer have in common?

They each possess one of the rarest pieces of San Francisco paperwork a private citizen can obtain: a license to carry a concealed, loaded and legal handgun. The permits are issued only with the approval of the police chief or sheriff, and approval is not granted often.

That’s in stark contrast to other California counties, where “if you can spell your name right you can get” a concealed weapon permit, said Ken Walsh, a lecturer at San Francisco State University and private investigator.

The Police Department issued The City’s three active permits, with only one granted in 2012. The Sheriff’s Department, which has no active permits, rejected all six requests last year, said Capt. Kathy Gorwood, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman.

To be issued a concealed weapons permit, a citizen must demonstrate the need to be armed. It is “very difficult” to do that, according to Officer Carlos Manfredi, a Police Department spokesman.

The concealed weapon permit figure does not include firearms carried by retired law enforcement officers. Former police officers or sheriff’s deputies may carry a firearm as long as they are not later convicted of a crime or undergo a mental health-related incident that requires action such as a 72-hour hold.

croberts@sfexaminer.com