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The Last Gun Store in San Francisco Just Closed

San Francisco already has some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, and new legislation is only making it harder to legally own a gun.

by Jules Suzdaltsev
Nov 5 2015, 10:04pm

All photos by the author

It should come as no surprise that San Francisco is pretty hostile toward guns. The city has some of the toughest gun control laws in America: Friscans are prohibited from carrying a concealed weapon; they're required to install trigger locks, or keep their gun in a safe. Even the types of bullets you can use are restricted.

In 2005, voters went so far as to approve an outright ban on handguns, which was later struck down for violating the basic relationship between local government and state law. This summer, Supervisor Mark Farrell has introduced new measures to monitor and restrict gun sales in the city. And now, the last gun store in San Francisco, High Bridge Arms, has finally closed its doors for good.

As Farrell sees it, "easy access to guns and ammunition continue to contribute to senseless violent crime here in San Francisco and across the country. Even though San Francisco has some of the toughest gun control laws on the books in the country, there is more we can do to protect the public." The new regulations, which haven't been voted on yet, would require all in-store transactions to be recorded and then turned over to the SFPD.

On its face, it sounds like a reasonable idea. The police should have access to gun sales records—and in fact, they mostly already do. If High Bridge Arms could survive the proposed 2005 handgun ban, why couldn't it deal with some redundant legislation that hadn't even been implemented yet?

To learn more, I visited the shop just before it closed. It was tucked away just off Mission Street and Caesar Chavez Blvd, in an abandoned corner of the painfully residential Bernal Heights neighborhood. The store itself was nearly barren, though there were a few straggling customers trying to get their fix before the shop closed. One guy brought his two toddlers, who were sitting on the floor, playing with a flak jacket.

Despite some of the strictest gun control laws in the country, crime in San Francisco is not only excessively high, but it's been rising. Spillover from California's murder capital, Oakland, coupled with drug addiction and mental illness fueled violence cannot be solved by a redundant ordinance. To try and understand why San Francisco can't seem to figure out it's own gun problem, I sat down with the former general manager of High Bridge arms, Steve Alcairo, just days after they closed.

VICE: How long have you been with the store?
Steve Alcairo: Let's see...I had been there since '05.

That was around when Prop H, the handgun ban, popped up, right?
Yeah, it was.

What was that like?
You know, it was kind of strange because typically the topic of politics or what have you is something we just kind of keep out of the shop. Before High Bridge, I was at Jackson Arms, and I learned that it was probably a good idea to kind of have bar-type rules, where you really didn't talk about politics and religion and things like that. But When the Prop H came out, though, I did speak to a lot of our clients and a lot of them admitted to me that they didn't even vote on it.

Are San Francisco gun owners kind of lazy about supporting gun rights?
Yes. Absolutely. Because what you find is that most San Franciscans that actually do own them, have the attitude of live and let live. Although they disagree with any kind of ordinance or anything they try to pass on the city level, a lot of them just figure that there are enough gun [owners] out there, so it won't pass.

And then none of them vote.
Right. That was the bulk answer I got. They're just like, "You know what? I generally don't vote. I don't like the government. I don't like them sticking their hands [in my business]." But to me, I mean, that's kind of contradicting themselves because if they didn't like that, they should be keeping tabs on what the elected officials are doing at the municipal level—because if you're not paying attention, they'll pass all these bills all day long and you wouldn't know it. And you may not agree with it but it'll be too late for you to do anything about it.

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But in this case, the new regulations proposed by Farrell haven't gone into effect. So why close down prematurely? Were you already struggling financially?
You know, we were doing OK. We weren't really seeing that much money coming in, and historically, the summer is pretty slow, but the announcement of that idea came out and we started getting calls. Even today we know if we were submitting their information to the police department willingly like that, they would just simply shop somewhere else. A bulk of our clients have two things widely in common: They want to buy a firearm, and they're very private individuals. Some of our clients are authors, and athletes. One gave me a call and said that he wishes us well, but that he wouldn't want to be filmed in store, it would be bad for PR.

But you were already filming all the transactions anyway, right?
Well, we have a long list of use conditions in our permit to operate in the city. Part of those conditions are that if a uniformed officer, in this working capacity, ever enters the building, we are to surrender a customer's information, firearm information, what they bought, and any video surveillance. Our surveillance has a minimum of a month to have to be stored, [then] be available to officers or inspectors of the San Francisco police department or agents thereof. So that was all there.

I see. So then why close the store?
The constant phone calls. The worst part was that one out of every five [phone conversations] I had was, "Have you contacted the supervisor's office?" And they say no. So I feel like, OK, I'm not working for the Board of Supervisors, doing the explaining, when [supervisor Mark Farrell] should be the one explaining. And then two, business. I wouldn't say it took a nosedive, but it made a significant impact on our cash flow, which we rely on. Because, you know, the margin of the industry, it's pretty bad.

How many guns would you sell in a month?
In a month? It would vary anywhere from 20 to 40 a month. But that's not including someone who comes in with a private transaction. So let's say you and I had met on some sort of firearm forum and you agreed to meet me at that shop to look at it, closely examine it, and if you decide you want to purchase it, we would facilitate that transaction.

How many of those would there be a month?
Almost an equal amount, 20 to 50.

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So you're selling less than 100 guns a month. That doesn't sound great.
Well, there's also this state law that says you can only buy one handgun a month. Here's the funny part: If you came over to my house for a barbecue and I had like, let's say, five Colts with sequential serial numbers, you'd be like, "Wow! That's awesome! I want to buy all five of those." I can meet you at a licensed dealer and we can do a private transaction for an unlimited number of guns, and you could even go from person to person. So these ordinances are really going to kind of slow down a license holder trying to do the right thing.

That's a silly loophole. What do most San Franciscans buy? Handguns?
Yeah, totally. And I would say that easily 30 percent are women, and they all tell me the same thing: "It wasn't originally a hobby that I wanted to pick up but I feel like it's an equalizer. My neighbor got his house broken into while he was home, he's a burly man and I'm a 110-pound woman in Mission, so police response times vary." I hear stories like that. "I filed a police report against this man last month. He followed me; he assaulted me and I pepper sprayed him. Then I saw him again a block away from where I get off the bus. Just standing there. I don't know if it was a coincidence but he seemed like he was waiting, so it freaked me out. I thought I should probably get some protection. He could have followed me right to my apartment building and I wouldn't have known." We get that a lot. I got tons of stories like that from people.

Do you get hate from anti-gun activists?
You know Code Pink? [Code Pink is an anti-war, anti-gun, social justice, left wing protest group.] About a dozen of them rolled out on us in 2011. They were [outside the store] with a sign saying something like, "ARMS ARE FOR HUGGING; NOT FOR KILLING!" Honestly I don't have a problem with that; they were not disrupting business coming in or out. They were being loud but not to the point where they were being disrespectful to us in any way. Now it did distract some of my staff, but I reminded everybody that they're out there exercising their right to free speech. If you go out there and tell them to move it along or do it somewhere else, we wouldn't be any better than someone telling us that they don't want our business here. I would go to war to protect the right to do what they're doing—quite literally.

So then they started tapping at the windows, hard, and waving their signs at the windows. And there was a journalist there—I don't remember who he was, I want to say he was from Mission Local or something—and when they did that, he immediately looked at us for a reaction. So I told my staff, "Do me a favor. Everybody take your guns off and go out there and give them a hug." And they did. We all did. After we gave them hugs, they stayed out for another ten or 20 minutes, and they left. I think they actually liked what we did—some of them did, but a majority of them didn't.

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Do you think San Franciscans in general are apathetic to gun rights or anti-gun?
You know, I would tend to think that if you want to embrace San Francisco, if you're a native or if you just moved here, I would say to embrace the idea of live and let live. If you're not imposing on me, then I don't really have a problem with it. I may not agree with it, I may not like it, but I'm not going to step on your toes or discourage you from doing what you feel is right for you. I mean, just in this last week, people were coming to the door, telling us they wished us well, that they live in the immediate area and that while they don't have an interest in firearms, they do support those who want to buy them legally.

It sounds like the anti-gun regulations primarily hurt legitimate firearm dealers.
Yeah, for people out there in the street, I mean, you know, what's changed for them? If I go to a dark corner of San Francisco where I meet a guy with all "the goods", and I've got the money, it's just a simple exchange, hoping no one gets killed in the process. The only change is that High Bridge is gone now.

So where do San Franciscans go to buy guns now?
I tell people to go to Jackson Arms in South San Francisco, which is technically San Mateo County.

Follow Jules Suzdaltsev on Twitter.