Gun owners who fire their weapons for fun in Sacramento could face stiffer penalties under a proposal the Sacramento City Council is scheduled to consider Tuesday night.
City and police officials want to clamp down on people who discharge their firearms for seemingly little reason, noting that gunfire – even celebratory shots – can intimidate neighbors and instill fear.
Reports of gunfire are on the rise within the city, partly due to the installation in June of gunshot-detecting microphones in a 3-square-mile section of North Sacramento. Police say the microphones – part of a system called ShotSpotter – are detecting gunfire even when residents do not call 911.
Under current law, discharging a gun without causing harm to others is an infraction, which means offenders are usually let off with a ticket and fine. Police officials say upgrading the offense to a misdemeanor may prompt a change of behavior from people who regularly fire their guns because police will gain the power to arrest them.
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“We’re trying to end violence,” said Capt. Dave Risley of the Sacramento Police Department. “Gunfire under any circumstances does not translate into a safe community.”
Through Dec. 30 last year, the ShotSpotter system recorded 313 instances of gunfire in North Sacramento, according to police Sgt. Bryce Heinlein. Those resulted in 220 contacts with residents and more than 100 police reports.
According to a city staff report, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office has been reluctant to prosecute people who fire their guns at random because it can be difficult to prove whether the discharge was in a “grossly negligently manner which could result in death or injury.”
“If no one else is present or in the general vicinity when a person discharges a firearm, the ability to prove each element of the crime beyond a reasonable doubt can be a challenge,” the report said.
“There should be another avenue to prosecute these cases for people who come out to indiscriminately fire a weapon,” Risley said.
The proposal would exempt law enforcement officers acting in their official capacity, as well as those using guns for self-defense or to defend others. People using gun ranges also would be exempt from prosecution.
The change has the backing of Councilman Allen Warren, who was born and raised in Del Paso Heights and represents North Sacramento. On Monday, Warren said he was pleased with ShotSpotter, noting that the technology has given police a more accurate assessment of the violent crime situation.
“We want safer streets, safer communities,” he said.
Warren noted that some council members may pursue a slight modification to the latest proposal, adding an exemption for residents of rural areas who may need to protect livestock from wild animals like coyotes.
Councilman Jay Schenirer, who represents parts of south Sacramento, also voiced support for the change. The Police Department is considering an expansion of ShotSpotter to south Sacramento later this year. “I think the council will be unanimous,” he said of the Tuesday vote.
Sam Paredes, executive director for Gun Owners of California, expressed support for both ShotSpotter and the latest proposal. However, he was troubled by the lack of exemptions for theatrical performances, reenactments and other organized events that may involve the discharge of guns.
Police officers will use discretion when guns are discharged at sanctioned events, said Randi Knott, government affairs director for the city. But Paredes said that would result in the law being applied inconsistently.
“We think our laws should be crystal clear,” he said. “Exemptions should be the clearest way of clarifying any misunderstandings.”
At issue is the definition of a firearm and whether discharging blanks or using starter pistols qualify as a violation of the ordinance. The proposal defines firearm as “any device, designed to be used as a weapon or modified to be used as a weapon, which expels a projectile through a barrel by the force of an explosion or other form of combustion.”
The weapons fired during historical reenactments are generally real, even though there is no projectile, said Rick Stevenson, an experienced prop master and Sacramento resident.
“Law is absolute. You don’t pick and choose when to enforce it,” said Stevenson, who plans to speak before the City Council on the issue Tuesday.