Tag Archives: Guns

Goodbye Guns: San Francisco’s Last Gun Store Rides Off into the Sunset

Steve Alcairo, general manager at High Bridge Arms checks the sights of his personal rifle during downtime. Photo by Ryan McNulty

By Colin Blake

[dropcap size=”50px”]I[/dropcap]n 1971, Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood, was the ice-cold San Francisco police inspector tasked with catching the city’s serial killer in the blockbuster movie “Dirty Harry.” Callahan solved this problem with astute, yet brute detective work, but ultimately closed the case with a Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum revolver.

At first glance, San Francisco might appear as if it welcomed swift, bullet-riddled judgement at the hand of one, but despite box office success, the characterization of Callahan and his methods were fictitious from the start.

A total of five “Dirty Harry” movies were made in San Francisco over a period of 17 years. Each iteration was arguably more and more contrary to the reality of San Francisco police work.

In 1978, two years after the third “Dirty Harry” installment, San Francisco saw real, bloody crime scene photos of two prominent San Franciscans as they lay lifeless on the marble floors of city hall. Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were shot by former Supervisor Dan White on Nov. 27, 1978 with a Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver.

Following White’s trial, after which he served five of a seven-year sentence at Soledad State Prison, the White Night riots protested everything from gay rights to police brutality and the frequency of which guns were used as a primary tool of resolving issues.

Now, San Francisco, in what is a culminating into a politically-sticky event, will be the firearms antithesis of what was portrayed in the movies of yesteryear.

By the end of October, San Francisco’s last legally operated gun store, High Bridge Arms, is shutting its doors for good. The closure will make it impossible to buy firearms legally in the city by removing San Francisco’s last California firearms license holder.

However, High Bridge Arms isn’t being forced to close. The business is willingly closing to spare its customers from perceived intrusions coming from a new batch of gun control ordinances proposed by Supervisor Mark Farrell, which unanimously passed the Board of Supervisors Oct. 27.

High Bridge Arms, the last gun shop in San Francisco only has two guns left to display due to the closing of the shop. (Imani Miller/Xpress)
High Bridge Arms, the last gun shop in San Francisco only has two guns left to display due to the closing of the shop. Photo by Imani Miller

Supervisor Farrell’s regulations require all gun stores in San Francisco to operate multi-angle camera systems that law enforcement can draw upon if necessary.

More than that, the law requires comprehensive record keeping of ammunition sales, including, but not limited to, the purchaser’s full name, address as well as the caliber of the ammunition.

“This isn’t the first attempt to get us out of here,” said Steve Alcairo, general manager of High Bridge Arms. “Everyone is a little tired of fighting this stuff.”

In late 2009, High Bridge Arms closed briefly because the owner, Masashi Takahashi, believed it was too much work. Then, in 2010, High Bridge Arms was set to reopen for business at the same location.

Attempts were initially delayed due to the city holding off retail permits to the store because the neighborhood association Northwest Bernal Alliance claimed the store brought violence to the area.

Sgt. William Coggan, who led the permit committee in 2010, told SFGate that claims of violence were unfounded and that “High Bridge appears to be a reasonably well-run business.”

Permits were issued soon thereafter.

Supervisor Scott Wiener has long supported lessening access to firearms in San Francisco.

“San Francisco supports strict gun control, as do I,” Wiener said.”It’s fine with me for San Francisco not to have a gun shop. Guns whose sole purpose is to shoot people have no place in our city in the hands of civilians.”

[pullquote align=”right”]”San Francisco supports strict gun control, as do I,” Wiener said.”It’s fine with me for San Francisco not to have a gun shop. Guns whose sole purpose is to shoot people have no place in our city in the hands of civilians.”[/pullquote]

Mayor Ed Lee and Chief of Police Greg Suhr had to deal with a high-profile, murder-by-firearm case in July. A .40-caliber handgun was used to murder Kathryn Steinle as she walked with her father on Pier 14.

Steinle, 32, was shot once in the chest by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez in what prosecutors are calling a random event. Remanded until the trial, Lopez-Sanchez could serve the rest of his life in prison if convicted as charged. The family of Steinle is filing a wrongful death suit against the city of San Francisco.

The Steinle case brought the issue of gun control into focus in San Francisco politics.

Second amendment lawyer Doug Friesen said this new legislation would have done nothing to prevent the Steinle shooting, nor would it really get to the heart of gun violence.

“This is really just a feel-good fix,” Friesen said. “The real issue is, the underlying issue, is mental health and being able to treat people who need it.”

If the regulations pass, High Bridge Arms could challenge them by taking the city to court, according to Friesen. However, battling court cases is an expensive, arduous process which many people do not pursue due to financial reasons, no matter the strength of their case.

“The question here is, ‘is this going to be worth it?'” Friesen said.

Even if High Bridge Arms will be no more, establishments beyond gun stores sell firearms and ammunition. Places like sporting good stores and Walmarts have long been selling these accoutrements throughout California and the United States.

A Walmart does not currently stand in San Francisco, but a Big 5 Sporting Goods does. The sporting store does not sell firearms or ammunition.

Mark Smytheman is one-of-two assistant managers at the Big 5 Sporting Goods on Sloat Boulevard.

“No, we stopped selling guns and ammunition about five years ago,” Smytheman said.

Smytheman referenced the city’s 2012 and 2013 Master Fee Schedule of Budget Submissions, which steadily increased the cost to file, purchase and maintain the various licenses associated with selling firearms and ammunition as the reasoning for the decision.

“You can go down the road to Daly City and buy some,” Smytheman continued. Having previously worked at the Daly City branch, Smytheman estimates that half of the people in the store buying firearms were coming from San Francisco.

If not a sporting goods store, a final avenue where guns might be available is a pawn shop. Some pawn shops do have firearms in their business models, however, that is not the case in the city, according to licensing records.

Sunny Martin works at Pawn Shop on Sutter and Polk Streets in San Francisco.

“If a customer brings in a gun or a weapon to pawn, we have to send them elsewhere,” Martin said. “I don’t think we are permitted to, plus it’s company policy.”

The only pawn shops that he knows of that are capable of dealing with firearms are located outside of the city.

San Francisco’s proposed gun control ordinance is not groundbreaking or rare. From Los Angeles to Sacramento, several municipalities have implemented ammunition tracking as well as store surveillance for more than a couple years, with new regulations annually. Despite the growing trend, San Francisco will be unique in that it will be the only city lacking a firearms supply store.

The Buildable AR-15

Photos by David Henry


A gun is fired once the trigger is pulled, causing the hammer to hit the firing pin, which strikes the primer that ignites the smokeless powder, thus twisting the bullet down the barrel’s rifled interior, and onto its intended target. But in this instance, the gun, an AR-15, could not complete that sequence, without first being completed itself.

The AR-15, with its separable upper and lower receivers, has become the most popular buildable firearm nationwide, given its price and accessories aftermarket. Only recently, the AR-series lower receivers have been available in incomplete form for the user to complete. The less-than-legal nomenclature of “80 percent” has arrived to describe them, requiring machine-work to finish the gun to 100 percent functionality.

Credit: David Henry. AR-15 in its two component pieces.
Credit: David Henry. AR-15 in its two component pieces.

These incomplete firearm receivers, with more than hand tools, adept machining, and adequate funds, can be turned into guns legally without ever stepping foot into a gun store. The Gun Control Act of 1968 clearly states that “an unlicensed individual may make a ‘firearm,’ for his personal use, but not for sale or distribution.”

Carl, of Kerley’s Hunting and Outfitting in Cupertino, California, has been selling the registered, pre-made AR-15’s for more than a decade.

“We don’t sell ’80 percents’ here, but we have been selling fewer AR’s,” Carl said. “I know that we also have been selling a lot of upper receivers… That tells me a fair amount of people are building their own now.”

The upper receiver is combined with the lower, either pre-made at a factory or made by an individual, to make a working gun.

It is important to note that “80 percent” guns are not required to have a serial number, registration, or identifying marks unless for sale or transfer. Sale or transfer must happen under the supervision of a federal firearms license holder: basically gun stores.

Even though they start life as nothing more than fancy paperweights, guns that are made by private individuals must adhere to federal and state laws regarding the legal features of guns once they are operational: This is not a loophole for fully automatic guns. Moreover, if an individual is not eligible for firearm ownership to begin with, milling an incomplete receiver to complete status is still a felony, according to the Gun Control Act.

Even still, final word on what is and is not a firearm comes from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. On two separate occasions, once in 2012 and again in late 2013, the ATF wrote memorandums legally qualifying features that constitute completion; all “80 percent” receivers now follow this framework in order to avoid being sold as guns.

In short, the lower receiver must not have the capability of dropping the firing pin on the primer of the bullet, thus ejecting the round. It can, however, have provisions for a grip and buttock, fully-formed magazine well and assembly lugs, and minute aspects like a bolt release lever.

When gun purchases skyrocketed under the specter of President Obama’s 2012 gun control push, which followed the Newtown Connecticut shooting, AR-15’s sold out in days, according to the Office of the Attorney General. Major retailers like Cabela’s, MidwayUSA, and Walmart, had no inventory and no estimates for replenishment.

All told, the ATF estimated that nearly 1.1 million guns were sold in the U.S. for the year 2012 — the most ever in a single year. This statistic was the basis for the National Rifle Association calling President Obama “the best gun salesman in history.”

Credit: David Henry. Two AR-15's; one built, one bought.
Credit: David Henry. Two AR-15’s; one built, one bought.

With demand outstripping supply, new non-gun makers sprang up to sell incomplete AR-series lower receivers to meet demand. These sellers were able to pop up quickly because they were not selling firearms; therefore sellers did not need to apply for an expensive and onerous federal firearms license.

Ares Armor, 80Percent Arms, and the now-famous Defense Distributed, are companies that hold major market share in the buildable firearms industry. These companies, and others, have been so successful that they have moved on from offering just AR-15 components, to offering kits to build AK-47’s and model 1911 pistols: supremely popular guns.

What once fired the basic .223/5.56 caliber cartridge, the buildable AR-15’s can be tailored to the users shooting needs: A bullet as small as a .22lr, designed for plinking soda cans at the range, or something as massive as the .50 BMG, which is designed for extremely long range shooting, can be chambered.

Credit: David Henry. The .223 bolt carrier group for an AR-15.
Credit: David Henry. The .223 bolt carrier group for an AR-15.

The .50 BMG caliber is presently illegal in California after the passage of the 2004 .50 Caliber BMG Regulation Act. California is the only state to enact such restrictions, citing the bullet’s threat to the “health, safety, and security of all residents,” which is the language of the regulation act.

These various caliber options allow AR owners to quickly change their upper receiver, while keeping their original lower receiver to fire a different caliber based on what ammunition is available.

The culmination of all this is the gun owners, who seem to face stigma due to the actions of a psychotic few, want anonymity, choice, and convenience.

Greg Phaxton is a gun collector and shooting enthusiast who has recently turned an “80 percent” lower into a shooting, precise gun.

“I really think the ’80 percent’ receiver has changed how we view guns and regulations forever,” said Phaxton. “I first bought one ’80 percent’ receiver, did a rough job finishing it, and it shot just like my Bushmaster.”

Bushmaster, located in Windham, Maine, has been a long-time producer of the AR-15.

“Nearly every caliber I can afford to shoot, I can make an AR for now,” Phaxton said. “It still is expensive though.”

Factory-made AR-15’s can sell for as low as $799 to as high as $5,000; The average “80 percent” is $120, but depending on the quality of material, design aspects, and caliber, the price fluctuates.

Credit: David Henry. AR-15 during ceasefire.
Credit: David Henry. AR-15 during ceasefire.

Nevertheless, the tooling to complete a receiver can be hugely expensive. Factors of speed, repetition, precision, and automation, all play a role in deciding what tools to buy.

A $72 Ryobi router with $50 worth of end-mills could complete the job, but ensuring tight tolerances would be hard. On the other hand, a $60,000 5-axis CNC machine could complete the job to within one thousandths of an inch by hitting the “enter” key on a keyboard.

Even still, once tooling has been acquired, further spending is still required; but the buildable firearms trend is not about cost cutting. It is done in a sort of protest, a pushback against gun-owner generalization, or simply to stay off the grid.

“I just want to be left alone,” Phaxton said. “I’ve broken no laws.”