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Oakland, reeling from gun violence, aims for unprecedented solution

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OAKLAND — As a City Council member here, Libby Schaaf is notified each time someone is shot. That, it turns out, occurs several times each day.

It is a relentless reminder of Oakland's sweeping public safety crisis: So far this year there have been 3,026 gun crimes in this city just shy of 400,000 residents, which tops the list of the state's most dangerous.

Extreme conditions, reasoned Schaaf — among the public officials who recently attended the wrenching funeral of an 8-year-old girl strafed with gunfire at a slumber party — require exceptional measures.


FOR THE RECORD:
Oakland gun law: An article in the Sept. 14 Section A about Oakland's push for a local gun registration and licensing program reported that the Oakland police union is backing the legislation. Barry Donelan, president of the Oakland Police Officers Assn., said his board has not taken a position on it. —


And so was born an unprecedented effort to seek an exemption from the California law that bars local governments from regulating the registration or licensing of firearms.

"Since the moment I came into office I've been on a quest to understand ... the tools that Oakland could use to reduce the bloodshed in any way," said Schaaf, who tapped academics in criminology and law for ideas.

The legislation sponsored by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Oakland) has passed both legislative chambers and is sitting on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, an Oakland resident and two-term mayor here. It joins a dozen other gun control measures awaiting the governor's decision, including bills that would outlaw the sale of rifles with detachable magazines, expand the list of crimes that result in a possession ban and crack down on straw purchasers of firearms.

No municipality has previously received such an exemption, yet Bonta called the "targeted approach" to hand this regulatory decision-making to local officials "good policy," noting that 12 children were among Oakland's 130 homicides last year — 90% of them gun-related.

This year has also seen the slaying of several children, among them Alaysha Carradine. Known to her family as "Ladybug," she was slain at a July slumber party when an unknown suspect knocked on the door and opened fire. A 7-year-old girl and 4-year-old boy were wounded.

California does not require registration per se but rather a "dealer record of sale," provided to the state Department of Justice at the point of purchase. That data can quickly become out of date.

Oakland officials say a city licensing and registration program would help police better track local gun patterns, including thefts; locate straw purchasers; remove firearms promptly from the hands of those barred from possessing them; and allow for better gun safety education.

The gun lobby is opposed, saying the state Department of Justice already tracks gun purchases and that local interference would layer undue costs on law-abiding firearms owners.

"The bill does nothing useful and is just going to make it more difficult for poor people in Oakland to defend themselves and their families," said Brandon Combs, president of the California Assn. of Federal Firearms Licensees, which lodged its formal opposition to the bill.

But some experts say Oakland could prove a worthy test case for local control for larger cities, such as Los Angeles, which tend to face the greatest crime concentrations. Home rule, they note, allows faster local access to better data in high-crime areas without imposing the same controls on rural areas, which would likely fight them most and arguably need them least.

"It doesn't isolate the big cities in California, it isolates one city in California," said UC Berkeley law professor and criminologist Franklin Zimring. "It says, 'OK, Oakland, you've got a big problem now, let's see what you want to add to the existing California policy that responds to the nature of firearms violence Oakland-style.'"

The Oakland experiment, Zimring said, could serve to "test the waters of local control and to see whether the political process that produces city-level gun policy can get inclusive and responsible, and whether it can get specific and selective in ways that can solve the problem."

Oakland has been struggling with a rising crime rate and police force that shrank by a fourth because of budget cuts over the last five years. While homicides and some other violent crimes have dipped slightly this year over the same period last year, robberies with a firearm are up almost 50%.

Complicating matters, the Police Department is under pressure to satisfy conditions of a decade-old federal court settlement that stemmed from racial profiling and improper use of force, and is now subject to the day-to-day oversight of a court-appointed compliance director.

Among those Schaaf sought out was Stanford University economist and law professor John Donohue, who said local registration and licensing that includes regular renewals and mandatory reporting of thefts has been shown to provide important data to law enforcement.

He cited New York City's program as an example of success.

Because Oakland has been so reluctant to spend money on policing, Donohue said he worries the data would sit unanalyzed. However, he said, academics would probably be willing to help.

For proponents of gun rights, this measure would open the floodgates.

"There's no more clear outcome than very hostile municipalities trying to create more and more difficult regulatory schemes," Combs said.

It's a scenario that the Law Center to Prevent Violence welcomes.

Cody Jacobs, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based nonprofit, which backs the bill, said a handful of cities across the country have gun registration and licensing programs, but none are in the 45 states — California among them — that by statute restrict such local efforts.

Jacobs said California cities have been increasingly adopting other regulatory measures that aren't banned by state law — restrictions on the location of dealers, for example — and would probably jump at the chance at greater authority.

"We hope Oakland can be a model," he said.

The Oakland mayor and City Council — along with the police chief and police union — have backed the measure.

Brown's inclinations are unknown, but his deep history here will no doubt play into his decision.

Said Zimring: "He knows every skeleton in most of the closets, but he also knows what the problems are.""

lee.romney@latimes.com

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