Amid local spike in gun violence, the Board of Supervisors regulates firearms retailers
“At this very moment in Santa Cruz, there is gun violence happening.”
This announcement was made while helicopters circled overhead and sirens screeched in the near distance, as residents of Santa Cruz County came together to make their voices heard about the recent increase in gun violence at both a local and national level.
The rally, which took place at the Clock Tower in Downtown Santa Cruz on Tuesday, Feb. 26, was put on by the recently formed local group Community Against Gun Violence. That same afternoon, two police officers and one civilian suspect were shot dead near N. Branciforte Avenue and Water Street. It was the first time Santa Cruz had ever lost police officers in the line of duty. By the time he was found, the suspect was wearing body armor and was in possession of three different guns.
The incident was the latest in a string of violent crimes that have unfolded around Santa Cruz in the last month. Others included the armed robberies of the Food Bin and of a UC Santa Cruz student near Natural Bridges State Beach, and a fatal gang-related shooting outside the Red Room bar downtown.
While it is unclear if or how any of these acts were related to one another, one thing is certain: the “crime wave” has made for an interesting backdrop as the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors looks into regulations on firearms retailers.
Perhaps nobody can provide better testimony to that point than County Supervisor John Leopold. Upon learning that a gun shop was planned to open in his district, Leopold was surprised to discover that the unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County had no regulations for firearms retailers. He proposed a 45-day moratorium on opening new gun shops, to give the county some time to draft an ordinance. The moratorium was voted into effect on Jan. 15.
“Sometimes you don’t notice loopholes in your regulatory system until it comes up,” Leopold tells Good Times. “People tell me that 36 years ago there was a gun store in Live Oak. That gun store went away, and no others came. Since then, we’ve developed a greater appreciation of what our responsibilities are as local officials.”
The moratorium initially came on the heels of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Conn. and the national conversation about gun control the tragedy prompted. A turnout of more than a hundred residents came to the Jan. 15 Board meeting, and public comment included a range of concerns, though Leopold and others on the Board stressed that the decision was more about land-use policy than the right to bear arms.
“The concern of those who didn’t support the moratorium was that this was some attempt to restrict gun access or make it a Second Amendment issue,” says Supervisor Zach Friend, who formerly worked as spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Police Department. “A number of people who wrote [letters] in favor of it were people that did not support access to firearms in general, and actually the discussion was about neither of those things.”
March 1 marked the end of the 45-day period, and in a Feb. 26 meeting the Board of Supervisors saw and discussed a first draft of the ordinance. The Board was expected to vote in approval of the ordinance on March 5, after this article went to press, upon which it would take effect a month later. The Board approved an emergency ordinance at the Feb. 26 meeting to extend the moratorium until then.
The draft ordinance was fairly similar to laws that already exist in the cities of Santa Cruz and Capitola, with its main regulations including zoning rules prohibiting gun shops from opening within 600 feet of any school, day care, “high risk alcohol outlet” (such as a bar), or another gun shop. Medical marijuana facilities may be added to that list before the final vote. The ordinance also requires each store to have security cameras, securely lock away firearms during closing hours and unload them during businesses hours, and annually renew their licenses. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office played an important role in drafting the ordinance, and will also help to ensure it is carried out.
The county used ordinances from incorporated cities within the county, as well as nearby cities such as Lafayette, Calif., as models when drafting the ordinance. It was stated at the Feb. 26 meeting that these regulations likely do not go above and beyond what many cities and counties in the state require.
County staff estimates that there are approximately 13 firearms dealers in the unincorporated parts of Santa Cruz County, though this does not mean that these places currently keep guns on their premises. According to the ordinance, these dealers would be “grandfathered in,” meaning that they would not be held accountable to new standards set by the ordinance.
That number does not include Boulder Creek Hardware. Owner Doug Conrad purchased the store in 2001, and although the owner previous to the one he bought it from did sell rifles, he chose not to because of the bureaucratic hassle. He says another set of rules is too much.
“I’m not a fan of the county telling us another regulation,” he says. “We’re getting enough already from the state level.”
Boulder Creek Hardware does, however, sell ammo, and Conrad describes his clientele as mostly purchasing for the purpose of self-defense, including one “honest, church-going lady.” He worries that the differences between the various, distinctly unique unincorporated parts of the county wouldn’t do well under a one-size-fits-all ordinance.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that Live Oak versus Boulder Creek is just very different, and the county needs to look at the different unincorporated areas differently,” he says. “Here’s a brand new Board of Supervisors, and they want to feel important. But we’re a pretty diverse county, and things are real different on Ocean Street than they are up here.”
Conrad’s main concern—that the county is overstepping its boundaries—was echoed at several different county meetings. Craig Reinarman, a professor of sociology at UCSC who focuses on crime issues, says that his view is probably not reflective of all gun owners.
“The gun lobby’s shrewd strategy has been to colonize an array of anxieties about modern life and frustrations with government and focus them on the demon ‘gun control,’” he says. “But polls show background checks, gun registration, and many other practical forms of gun regulation help reduce crime and violence and are supported not only by the vast majority of citizens, but by the majority of gun owners, including many NRA members.”
Reinarman also says he would not be surprised if violent crime rates in Santa Cruz County kept rising, given that the current economic climate has caused “severe dislocation and suffering,” which he says can lead to desperation. He stresses that the majority of people put in this situation do not commit violent acts, but that “we should not be shocked when a handful do drift into crime.”
Retired Santa Cruz County homicide detective Stoney Brook hopes to keep that from happening. Together with members of the Resource Center for Nonviolence and the local chapter of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, Brook formed the group Community Against Gun Violence, which plans to host events at which speakers will talk to local youth about gun violence. The group put on the Feb. 26 Rally to Speak Out Against Gun Violence, whose date and time happened to coincide with the two police officers’ deaths. Amid whispers between attendees of “all I know is it was at Branciforte and Water” and “the gunman’s still at large,” Brook spoke about gun violence and stressed the need to educate youth about it.
“I’ve seen the horrors. I worked homicides when we were the murder capital of the world,” Brook told GT after his speech, referring to a nickname the city held in the 1970s. “The trailside killer was one of my cases. When you see what it does, you realize that you have to do something. So I completely support what the [County] Board is trying to do [with the firearms sale ordinance], because they’re doing it in a well-thought-out way.”
Several different speakers at the rally addressed the recent wave of gun-related violence in the county, including the Feb. 11 robbery of a 21-year-old UCSC student sitting at the Natural Bridges bus stop. The victim of this attack spoke anonymously to GT, saying that she doesn’t mind her experience being used for political purposes.
“If positive change occurs as a result of my experience, then that’s great because better gun regulation is desperately needed, but I don’t want it to come about because I got hurt,” she says. “The change should be brought on so that no one has to go what I went through, and so no family has to live that kind of fear. It shouldn’t take the near-death experience of a student to rally people into action.”