While deadly mass shootings in the U.S. occur almost daily so far in 2023, many families are disrupted and damaged by less visible tragedies in the home caused by readily available, unprotected firearms. People in Healdsburg and elsewhere are frustrated that they seem powerless to stop the widespread availability of firearms, and a “gun culture” that normalizes open carry and assault weapons.
At the April 3 City Council meeting a month ago, first-year Council Member Chris Herrod brought up the idea of Healdsburg passing a “safe firearm storage ordinance,” having been encouraged to do so by “several of his constituents,” he said.
After arguing that there is a precedence for such an ordinance in communities nearby, Herrod persuaded Mayor Ariel Kelley and Councilmember Evelyn Mitchell to put the item on a forthcoming agenda for discussion. On May 1, that discussion took place for three hours during the meeting as the only item of new business.
Though Police Chief Matt Jenkins made himself available to answer questions on the topic, it was largely up to Herrod to make the case for an ordinance requiring safe firearms storage in the home.
Herrod pointed out that the council’s packet for the meeting—which includes not only the agenda but supporting documents and presentation—included examples of ordinances passed recently in Petaluma and St. Helena defining safe firearms storage.
“Until recently I didn’t know exactly what we could do locally to acknowledge the problem of gun violence, especially in schools, that has impacted many people from afar and also very personally in our community,” he said—that is, until he looked into the idea of a firearms storage ordinance. He said he talked with St. Helena Councilmember Anna Chouteau who “was instrumental in passing a safe storage ordinance in her city, but also active in Yountville and Napa passing their own ordinances.”
He called a safe storage ordinance “appropriate in terms of scope and vision to a community of our type that would not just send a message about the importance of gun safety, but also provide a tool for really helping to save lives.”
Councilmember Ron Edwards, who like Herrod is serving in his first year as a council member, weighed in. “One of the reasons I ran was to make real, lasting change, and I think that just passing this ordinance isn’t going to do that. What I would like to see is a real effort of education,” he continued, suggesting an annual Gun Safety Week and a letter to new residents outlining the “ordinances that are unique” to Healdsburg such as parking regulations or cannabis policy.
Edwards also wondered aloud what safe storage actually was, asking “Is that a tin box that a child or a teenager could pry open? I mean, what really is safe gun storage?”
Councilmember Evelyn Mitchell also questioned having an ordinance if it was going to be primarily “symbolic,” asking the police chief how it could be enforced. Jenkins said if it was an ordinance then law enforcement would likely find out about it after the fact or in an investigation of another crime, not by going into people’s homes to check their compliance.
He said it was unlikely the police would cite someone simply for violating the ordinance without first assuming the responsibility for education about safe gun storage and handling. “We don’t want the tragedy to happen, so if we do something to prevent it, and if that is education that does that, that’s a good step forward,” he said.
Herrod acknowledged that education was important, but insisted the first step was to pass an ordinance. “I would really like to see an ordinance, if we were able to enact one, to be a foundation for ongoing education,” he said.
Mayor Kelley asked about reporting lost, stolen or misplaced guns, and wondered if the police department currently accepts unwanted firearms. Chief Jenkins said that the department does take in weapons for surrender and destruction, and does so a couple times a year “for any number of reasons as long as there’s a lawful owner of it.”
From the council’s conversation it did not appear that most of those seated owned guns, though Edwards admitted he had. “When I was a rural property owner I did own a gun and it wasn’t a lot of process to own that weapon,” he said, adding, “I should say ‘tool.’ I know that responsible gun owners store their guns responsibly. Is there a packet from the NRA or some other gun organization that defines what that safe storage looks like?”
Responded the police chief, “California actually has a legislation in effect that defines what safe storage is, because under current state law, safe storage is required if you have a minor, someone under the age of 18, in your home or someone who could access it reasonably who would be prohibited from having a firearm.”
The first public comment came from a man who identified himself only as Jim, who asked that if there already was a state law, what good would it do for Healdsburg to pass an ordinance? But that was the only shade thrown on the idea of Herrod’s ordinance proposal: the next eight speakers, all women, spoke feelingly about the need for more control of firearms.
Among them was Kelly Dorrance, who lost a favorite niece to the recent shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tenn. Fighting back tears, she said, “Just over a month ago, my precious, spirited, incredible 9-year-old niece went to school on Monday morning in Nashville. And was shot dead in the hallway. Her name was Evelyn, and my family is utterly devastated.”
She also said that “most school mass shootings are done by a student or former student who has obtained an unsecured firearm from their own home.”
Dorrance added, “Officially last year in our country, firearms surpassed car accidents as the number one cause of death for children and teens in the United States. I am not anti-gun, but it couldn’t be more clear that our country has a true sickness and twisted obsession.”
Andy Davies of The Healdsburg School, also spoke up. Referring to earlier conversations the council had that evening, she said, “I love data. I hate the data that the number one killer of children is gun violence, and it’s through mass shootings and very often through accidental shootings. And very often those accidental shootings arise because somebody gets ahold of a gun that they don’t know how to use…”
The council ended their discussion by asking city staff through City Manager Jeff Kay to prepare an ordinance for the council to consider at a coming meeting, and to make recommendations on penalties, reporting lost or stolen weapons, and any necessary education components that might be wrapped into it.
With that, a spontaneous round of applause erupted from about 25 people in Council Chambers who had stayed to the end of the three-hour, 20-minute meeting for the discussion.
The last time the council weighed in on the guns issue was in September 2018, when it unanimously approved a ban on the sale of all firearms in Healdsburg’s downtown zone, and set limits for gun retailers elsewhere in the city.
That action was precipitated by an application from Windsor resident Scott Gabaldon to open a gun store on North Street, between the Toy Chest and the Raven Theater. Initially his application was accepted for processing by city staff, but the outcry that followed led to the council first passing an emergency block on his application, followed by the new ordinance.