Editorial: Enabling Mass Murders in El Cerrito

By Becky O'Malley
Tuesday June 26, 2007

In the last few days we’ve heard about a lot of crime in the area near our South Berkeley office. Our neighborhood association has reported at least three nearby hold-ups in broad daylight, and a frequent correspondent in the adjacent Temescal area has sent us a letter (in this issue) about a frightening unprovoked assault on a pedestrian by a gang of young teens who didn’t even appear to be looking to rob the victim.  

At the same time people have been shocked and saddened by the murder of an Albany doctor and her little girls by their husband and father. An El Cerrito reader wrote in to urge some sort of public action to close the Old West Gun Shop in his area, where the murder weapon was purchased, completely legally. Another reader’s response to his letter, printed in this issue, is that everyone should carry guns, and that would deter murders. This is patent nonsense. Does anyone seriously believe that if the murdered mother had been carrying her own weapon she could have stopped the killings? And what about the kids?  

One gun nut (yes, there’s a reason they’re called that) on a website promotes “man’s primal instinct to protect himself and his family through whatever means necessary.” Does this also describe the guys who kill their families with these all-too-available guns? Another man in St. Charles, Missouri, which used to be a peaceful bucolic river town, killed his whole family last week, though he spared himself.  

And in San Francisco, young gang members in the Western Addition with easy access to guns on both sides have recently been killing each other and innocent bystanders in terrible numbers. Just this weekend in Union City a recent high school graduate attending a supervised private party at the home of a school principal was shot dead as a result of an argument that it seems he wasn’t even part of. Then there are the all-too-frequent episodes like the recent mass killings in Virginia, where deranged suicidal people manage to take a lot of other innocent people out with them because they have the use of a powerful repeating weapon.  

Murder is as old as the human race, in biblical terms as old as Cain and Abel. But the amplification of the murderous instinct with modern weapons is a recent and frightening change. Even the gunslingers of the old west armed with six-shooters, nostalgically evoked by the El Cerrito gun dealer, lacked the deadly efficiency of present-day killers armed with easily purchased modern weapons.  

The idea of deterring street crime by arming all potential victims is fraught with peril. I’ll admit that I was a bit scared last week as I walked from my dentist’s office on Telegraph to my own office on Shattuck by way of the network of barriered back streets in the Halcyon Neighborhood, after hearing about the recent holdups there. But neither I nor anyone else in the area, especially innocent bystanders, would have been safer if I’d been packing. A workman at a house I passed greeted me in a polite, friendly way, but what if I’d been someone with her hand on a trigger ready with a rapid response to a perceived assault by someone carrying what looked like a weapon?  

There are less dangerous ways of dealing with this kind of situation. Community police patrols are an obvious deterrent, and in fact the police did arrest perpetrators in two of the recent robberies. Cell phones with an auto-dial setting for the local police number are effective, though 911 from cell phones is not as good because it just reaches the state highway patrol. 

It might be Berkeley heresy to say this, but it’s possible that the combination of a nearby BART station and car-free back streets could be part of the problem: easy entrance and egress by roving bad guys who can quickly disappear into the station, and not so many eyes on the streets when drivers are diverted elsewhere. People walking alone might be safer taking the big streets, though I must say the beautiful neighborhood gardens on my chosen route were much more attractive than the bumper-to-bumper Ashby traffic.  

It’s most unlikely that street criminals would be stopped in their tracks by believing that potential victims might be carrying guns—if they relied on logical thought processes they’d be in a different business altogether. In gang wars everyone’s reckless and they’ve all got guns, but that doesn’t stop them from killing each other.  

Survey after survey shows that the voting public all over the country would like to limit access to firearms, but the wealthy gun lobby manages to buy enough legislators to thwart meaningful legislation at the state and national levels. Some cities have enacted bans on gun sales, but then the traffic just moves to the suburbs. Over the weekend Jesse Jackson and a local parish priest were arrested in a protest at a gun shop in suburban Riverdale, Illinois, which they charged had been supplying Chicago gun wars since guns were banned in that city. 

East Bay activists should take a leaf from Jackson’s book and go after suburban dealers like El Cerrito’s Old West with on-site protests. Even though killings up and down the urban East Bay are often committed with illegal guns, the tragic slaughter of the Morrissey-Kawai family should be motivation enough for the El Cerrito city council and Contra Costa County supervisors to view continuing legal gun sales as a blight on their communities, and to pursue all available avenues to restrict or end the practice.