Police declare air guns illegal; S.F. public defender, D.A., and state law disagree

Everyone remembers the curt dismissal given to Ralphie, the protagonist of the 1983 film A Christmas Story, when he expressed his deep desire to obtain an Official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle: “You'll shoot your eye out, kid!”

According to the San Francisco Police Department, that's the response befitting anyone hoping to own a BB gun — or even a paintball gun — within city limits. No one, they say, may own a BB gun — even if you keep it in a gun safe alongside your legal firearms.

“It's a city ordinance,” said Lieutenant Daniel Mahoney of SFPD's legal division, referring to Police Municipal Code section 602. Captain David Lazar noted that, in his 18 years as a police officer, he has seen “numerous arrests for possession of an air pistol. It's a misdemeanor.” While he stresses that it isn't “the spirit of the law,” Lazar says that under the city's ordinance, an officer could even theoretically arrest you for possession of a BB gun that is secured in your home — and even in your gun locker.

Glancing at section 602, two things jump out: First, it broadly bans the possession of slingshots or “toys projecting missiles by air or gas.” This amorphous-enough designation encompasses not only BB guns or paintball guns but also NERF toys. Second, it was rendered obsolete five years ago by a state law signed by Governor Schwarzenegger that ostensibly intended to do away with odd, persnickety ordinances just like San Francisco's.

Both Public Defender Jeff Adachi and Brian Buckelew of the District Attorney's office noted that Section 602 had been overridden by the 2004 state law — Government Code 53071.5, for what it's worth — meant to bring consistency across the state. According to state law, both adults and minors may possess BB guns or paintball guns, so long as they don't discharge them improperly, expose them in public, or wander onto school grounds.

When asked whether the police were enforcing an antiquated law, Adachi groaned: “It wouldn't be the first time.” Buckelew added that there appears to be no prohibition against local stores selling BB guns or paintball guns. The only Big 5 Sporting Goods within city limits currently offers neither; regional operations manager Roger Tanaka told SF Weekly that the company had opted not to sell said devices — or firearms — in order to avoid local legal scrutiny.

You can, however, pick up a crossbow at the Big 5 capable of killing a man wearing a full suit of armor. But be careful — you'll shoot your heart out, kid!

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