shooting_nighttime.jpgThe conversation about reforming gun laws nationwide and in California waged on Thursday evening in downtown San Francisco at a Commonwealth Club panel that included state Rep. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley.

The four-member panel, moderated by San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz, included Skinner, who recently introduced a state bill to reduce gun ammunition sales; San Francisco police Sgt. Kelly Dunn with the special victims and psychiatric liaison units; Benjamin Van Houten, managing attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence; and National Rifle Association member Gene Hoffman, who is co-founder of the Calguns Foundation.

The discussion mostly focused the viability and logistics of enacting proposals President Obama introduced Wednesday to reduce gun violence.

Van Houten immediately commended Obama’s swift action following the deadly Newtown, Conn., school shooting last month, and added that congressional action is the next step to push changes to how and what guns are sold and used to strengthen the country’s “weak federal gun laws.”

“We need a national solution,” he said.

He noted that California has some of the most heavy-handed gun laws in the country, but those of nearby states such as Arizona and Nevada are much more lax, creating a pattern of guns coming in from those areas.

He said Obama’s plan would close a loophole in background checks in which buyers go to private sellers who don’t check on the purchaser.

Hoffman called Obama’s recommendations “useless,” although he said universal background checks would be a smart move.

He said murder and suicide rates continue on no matter the extent of state gun laws, and additionally, gun owners consider the controls an infringement on their rights.

Skinner contended that none of Obama’s proposals would infringe on the rights of responsible, law-abiding gun owners.

She expressed concern that California has an assault weapons ban, but that there’s nothing on the national level.

On Wednesday, the president called for restoring a ban on all military-style assault weapons and a 10-round limit for magazines.

“People can get around a city or state law,” she said, pushing for more comprehensive nationwide regulation. “Without a national law, the ability to protect ourselves is weakened.”

Skinner touted her bill that would require the same checks on buying ammunition as when buying guns.

“In California it’s easier to buy bullets than cigarettes, alcohol, certain cough syrups…” she said.

Van Houten cited the national daily murder rate at 33, which he considers reason enough that “military-style weaponry is simply not appropriate in our community.”

Skinner agreed, noting that more powerful weapons belong in the hands of trained authorities to protect communities.

“We are entrusting law enforcement to protect our public safety, but would we want them in hands of anyone else?” she said about high-capacity weapons.

Hoffman said Obama’s ideas would make gun ownership harder and more expensive for law-abiding gun owners.

Van Houten said he agreed with Obama that the country should take every step to block dangerous people from having guns, even if gun owners consider them annoyances.

“These are minimal inconveniences that can have a big impact,” he said.

Skinner agreed, noting that society at-large is “willing to take some inconveniences…to protect our public safety.”

Mental health was also discussed, as it has been part of the national conversation since the revelation that Newtown gunman Adam Lanza, 20, had mental health problems.

Dunn said, “mental illness doesn’t mean a person is more violent,” and she noted safeguards in place in San Francisco’s criminal and legal system that enforces gun restrictions on dangerous individuals, especially those who have been hospitalized.

The discussion got heated at one point, with Hoffman calling Obama’s proposed checks on the Second Amendment heading toward a slippery slope off practically confiscating all weapons, while Van Houten rhetorically asked “Is the solution just to have guns everywhere?”

Diaz ended the panel noting that it had been a “lively, substantive and civil discussion” that he hoped could be replicated nationwide in the coming weeks as Congress attempts to hash out a bipartisan solution to gun violence.

Sasha Lekach, Bay City News

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