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How one Bay Area city is causing national controversy with local gun control

Liz Pfeffer
Former Sunnyvale Mayor Tony Spitaleri leading a City Council meeting last January when the new gun ordinance went into effect.

Tony Spitaleri remembers the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut vividly. He was across the country, at home in Sunnyvale where he was mayor.

“I was sitting in my favorite chair, wife was sitting on the couch, and dog was barking,” he says, “and we were watching TV and it just flashed, it came like any other breaking news. ‘Breaking news: tragedy in Newtown.’ Sandy Hook, yeah. What happened?”

What happened was six adults and 20 children were killed by a school shooter. Spitaleri was distraught watching the updates come across the screen.

He wondered, “‘How can this be? How can this happen?’ All the questions that you ask trying to get answers, and no one's giving you answers.”

The incident set Spitaleri off. 

“Right from the get go I was mad,” he says. “I was just angry. I was really mad. I thought, ‘Why would anyone hurt a child?’”

Newtown was one of 16 mass shootings in the US in 2012. A dozen people died at a screening of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. Seven people were killed at a University in Oakland. Spitaleri thinks they could have been prevented with better gun control. So he decided that prevention would start in Sunnyvale. 

“I remember at a US conference of mayors, [someone] asked, ‘How many mayors are doing something on the local level?’” he says. “And only a handful of people raised their hands. They all pushed it off, ‘Well, the state preempts us,’ and this, that and all these other excuses.”

He came back and put gun control on the ballot. It garnered national attention. Then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg backed the campaign, and somehow Sunnyvale, California, population 146,000, with little to no gun violence, became a national example for small-town gun control, and a target for gun rights advocates. 

And last November, Sunnyvale voters agreed with their mayor’s proposal. It’s now illegal to possess magazines that hold 10 or more rounds of ammunition. Gun dealers must take a thumbprint and contact information from anyone purchasing ammunition. And there are stricter rules on reporting lost weapons and firearms storage.

“I don't want to stop anyone from owning a gun,” says Spitaleri. “I don't want to take anyone's guns away legally. I don't want to stop gun stores from being in business. They're not the problems.”

But the country’s largest gun advocacy groups have a problem with Sunnyvale’s law. Eric Fisher owns US Firearms Company, the only brick and mortar gun shop in town. He’s filed a lawsuit along with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry’s trade association. Lawrence Keane is senior vice president and general counsel.

“Customers have already stopped going to his store, because they refuse to be subject to the ammunition registration requirements,” says Keane, “So those are sales that are lost that he will never recapture. So he's suffering economic harm presently as a result of this violation of state law.”

The basis of the argument is that Sunnyvale gun sellers should be subject to state law, which doesn’t require them to keep track of ammunition purchases.

“The former mayor made this an issue in the wake of the tragedy that occurred in Newtown, and, coincidentally, the National Shooting Sports Foundation happens to be headquartered in Newtown, Connecticut,” he says. So we're very aware and familiar with the issue and the emotions that it generated. But our goal as a trade association for the firearms industry is to protect the economic interests of our members.”

To that point, Keane says Sunnyvale’s stricter gun laws will only make gun sellers suffer. They won’t make an already safe city safer; in the last three years there have been only two gun-related homicides. 

“One of those was a murder suicide which was a domestic situation, and then one of them was a gang-related shooting at a nightclub,” says Dave Pitts, deputy chief with the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety. He says that the impact of Sunnyvale’s new gun law has not been noticeable. No large-capacity magazines were turned in to police during a grace period after the law was enacted in January. There has been one violation but the District Attorney dropped the charge. But Pitts says that doesn’t necessarily mean Sunnyvale’s gun control is ineffective.

“It's hard to tell,” he says. “Sunnyvale's a safe community, but does it ever prevent anything? We never know. It's no different than officers on patrol day in and day out. Do they prevent burglaries by driving around or a strong armed robbery on the street? Most of the time we'll never know. Maybe someone saw the officer and decided not to commit the crime they were going to commit. Can we articulate and quantify that? No. So you never know.”

Effective? Who knows. Constitutional? That’s for a judge to decide. The Supreme Court already ruled in favor of Sunnyvale in a lawsuit brought by the National Rifle Association challenging the ban on large-capacity magazines. The case filed by the National Shooting Sports Foundation is pending.