101 California Street shooting sparked change in gun laws

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Before Columbine, Las Vegas and Parkland there was 101 California. 

Sunday marks 25 years since a middle-aged, disgruntled law firm client entered the 34th floor of a downtown San Francisco law office, took off his jacket, donned a pair of orange ear protectors and went on a shooting rampage that left eight people dead and six others critically wounded. 

The “101 California Street Shooting,” the worst mass shooting in San Francisco history, was, at the time, an almost unimaginable tragedy because of its seemingly random nature and because it happened at a time long before the bloody decade (2007 to 2017) that saw the five deadliest shootings in United States history. 

But 101 California was also a turning point that increased national public awareness about the need for tighter gun laws, and ultimately sparked real legislative change in California and across the nation.

In the aftermath of the shooting, California implemented some of the toughest gun laws in the United States. The incident at the Pettit & Martin law firm also spurred tighter security measures at office buildings, helped repeal a law that had given gun manufacturers immunity against lawsuits and sparked the founding of a number of organizations, including the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence in San Francisco. 

“You had this wake-up call with 101 California Street and that led to momentum at every level. There was interest from politicians in taking steps, community groups working together and a grassroots support for changes and effective solutions,’’ said Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Since the day gunman, Gian Luigi Ferri, 55, sprayed dozens of rounds from three semi-automatic pistols, anti-violence advocates have helped pass more than 60 gun-safety laws in California, cutting the state’s gun death rate by half between 1993 and 2013, twice the drop of the national average during the same time period. California now has one of the lowest gun death rates in the nation.

“California is such a success story. We have been able to accomplish so much here in terms of leading the way, and creating a really comprehensive model that other states can follow,’’ said Thomas.

The center also worked with state lawmakers and the California Firearms Strategy Group to make California the first state in the nation to enact a gun violence restraining order law.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law in October, 2014, just a few months after community college student, Elliot Rodger, 22, killed six people and wounded 13 in shooting and stabbing attacks in the area near the University of California, Santa Barbara. 

The law allows the seizure of guns from people determined by the courts or by family members to be a threat to themselves or others. 

Relatives of the victims and other supporters of the measure said the parents of Rodger were thwarted in their attempts to seek help for their troubled son before the rampage. Five other states have followed suit with similar laws. 

Moreover, the 101 California attack was cited by California Sen. Dianne Feinstein as a reason she pushed, successfully, for passage of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which prohibited the manufacture, transfer, or possession of nineteen listed semiautomatic assault weapons and approximately 200 firearms classified as assault weapons.

The ban took effect in 1994, the year after the 101 California Street shooting, but expired in 2004. Congress has enacted no gun restrictions in the 14 years since.

“It was the 1993 mass shooting at 101 California Street in San Francisco that was the tipping point for me. That’s what really motivated me to push for a ban on assault weapons,” Feinstein told the Washington Post.

The San Francisco shooting “made clear that the increasing sophistication of weapons had made it possible for a mass shooter to murder large numbers of people in a matter of minutes,” Feinstein told the newspaper. “The goal of the ban was to reduce the frequency and deadliness of mass shootings.”

Some data shows the ban had a significant impact. 

Louis Klarevas, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Boston who two years ago published a book on mass shooting violence, examined incidents before, during and after the assault weapons ban when six or more people were shot and killed.

His research shows that in the 10 years prior to the ban (1984 to 1994) there were 19 incidents. That number dropped to 12 incidents when the ban was in place and then skyrocketed to 34 incidents in the 10 years (2004-2014) after the ban expired. 

That reflects a 183 percent increase of mass shootings in the decade after the ban, compared to the years during the weapons ban. A separate mass shooting database compiled by Mother Jones magazine shows a similar trend, according to multiple reports. 

A federally funded study in 2004, however, found that the reduction in gun violence resulting from the ban was “small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.”

Still, Feinstein is pushing for a new ban. 

“From Aurora to Sandy Hook, San Bernardino to Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs to Parkland, one common thread that runs through mass shootings is the use of AR-15 military-style assault weapons,’’ she said in a statement. “These weapons are designed to kill the greatest number of people in the shortest amount of time and we need to get these weapons of war off our streets.”

One person who has championed against gun violence for 25 years is Steve Sposato, whose 30-year-old wife Jody was killed in the 101 California shooting. 

A month after his wife was killed, Sposato, with his 10-month-old daughter Meghan strapped on his back, went to Washington and testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of an assault weapons ban. 

When Feinstein's assault weapons ban was signed by President Bill Clinton, the president dedicated  the bill to Jody and two others. Clinton then handed Sposato the pen he had used. Sposato kept it. He framed it. He still has it today, along with a great sense of pride in what his activism helped accomplish.

“I’m very proud of what I was able to accomplish,’’ said Sposato, who live in the East Bay. “It restored my faith in the country that we were able to pass reasonable gun restrictions.”