Cynics that we are, when we first read that Vice Mayor John Knox White and Councilman Jim Oddie were going to put on a “town hall” about gun violence (which Mr. Oddie voguishly described as a “serious public health crisis”) on October 14, we immediately wondered whether the two Council members were engaging in anything more than an exercise in self-promotion.
After all, support for stronger gun-control laws is a major article in the creed to which all politicians who call themselves “progressives” subscribe. Indeed, just last week, MSNBC co-sponsored what it called a “forum” (rather than a “town hall”) on gun violence at which every one of the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates (except for the ailing Bernie Sanders) spoke, and, according to The New York Times, “the party’s increasingly unified support for strict gun control measures . . . was on full display.”
Both Mr. Knox White and Mr. Oddie, of course, like to wear the “progressive” pin on their lapels (it’s right next to the union label.) And a town hall on gun violence would give each the opportunity to do what he does best: deliver overblown rhetoric (Mr. Oddie) and “have a conversation” (Mr. Knox White). Moreover, as originally announced, two prominent state legislators (Assemblyman Rob Bonta and State Senator Nancy Skinner) would be on the stage to watch the two Councilmen in action. (Ms. Skinner subsequently bowed out. Another elected official, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley, also has been invited to be a panelist.)
So the political advantages of the town hall for its promoters were clear. But what about the ordinary Alameda residents who would be invited to attend? How would the event benefit the public at large?
As it turned out, we weren’t alone in our curiosity about the “cui bono?” issue.
At the September 17 Council meeting, Mr. Oddie presented a joint referral from Mr. Knox White and himself asking Council to “sanction” the town hall. Both expected the referral to sail through without objection. But that isn’t what happened. Ultimately, the referral passed unanimously, but, along the way, it was challenged by – get this – Councilwoman Malia Vella, and defended by – get this, too – Councilman Tony Daysog. (One can be sure that neither Mr. Oddie nor Mr. Knox White anticipated that their colleagues would line up this way when they submitted their referral.)
Ms. Vella indulged in one of her customary stream-of-consciousness soliloquies, in which she stated three times “I guess my question is” and only once followed up with an actual question (which turned out to be: “What’s the context of this meeting?”) But her point appeared to be two-fold.
First, she noted that, not so long ago (it was June 2018), Christ Episcopal Church held “A Conversation About Guns in Our Community” attended by more than 100 people (including Ms. Vella and Mayor Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft, but not, apparently, Mr. Oddie or Mr. Knox White). What topic would the “town hall” proposed by the two Council members cover that the Christ Episcopal forum hadn’t?
In addition, she pointed out, the California state legislature recently had passed a slew of new gun-control bills. (By the most recent count, 15 such bills have been signed into law this year.) The Alameda City Council had endorsed most (if not all) of this legislation, “but there is a limit to what the City can do.” What other actions did Messrs. Oddie and Knox White suggest that Council could and should take?
And then it was Mayor Ashcraft’s turn. She echoed Ms. Vella’s statement about Council having supported new state gun-control legislation – indeed, she read off a list of 11 bills Council had endorsed – and her acknowledgment of civic organizations that had devoted attention to gun violence. One of those groups in fact was planning a “United Against Hate” week in November, and Ms. Ashcraft suggested that Messrs. Oddie and Knox White “fold what you’re trying to do” into that.
Mr. Oddie was taken aback by these comments, and his responses were just a tad bit defensive. (At one point, he professed to be “offended” that Ms. Vella had accused him of “ignoring” work done by women – which she had not). But he never really answered the questions raised by his colleagues, instead simply repeating his talking points. (“This is a public-health crisis, and we need to act on it, and we need to do something as a city.”) And Mr. Knox White, speaking remotely from the Castillo Inn at the Beach in Santa Barbara, was not much more illuminating. (The “goal” of the town hall, he said, “is to sit down and have a conversation with people who are energized around this, to ask them what actions the City can take. . . .”)
Since neither Mr. Oddie nor Mr. Knox White is known for his talent for thinking on his feet, we won’t dwell much more on their off-the-cuff responses at the Council meeting. This week, however, the two published an op-ed piece in the Alameda Sun in which – after a hyped-up introduction – they dropped a few more hints about the agenda for the town hall. Unfortunately, we’re still struggling to grasp what they’re hoping to achieve.
The op-ed states that the “key” will be to “focus on outcomes,” and it lists four of them.
First, “all Alamedans should feel and be safe from mass shootings in our community.” A noble sentiment, to be sure. But are local residents really facing an imminent risk of “mass shootings”?
We can’t predict the future. But we do know that there never has been a “mass shooting” in Alameda, and, in fact, violent crime isn’t a frequent occurrence in the city. And we know this to be a fact because we asked Police Chief Paul Rolleri for historical data on crimes involving firearms in Alameda. Here’s the chart his staff put together in response:
The line in the chart that caught our eye is the one for robbery. From 2009 through 2016, there were an average of 31 armed robberies per year. But in 2017 and 2018, the numbers fell to 19 and 12, respectively, and there have been only nine so far this year. Chief Rolleri couldn’t offer any explanation for this decline, and he refused to take the bait when we noted that it followed the election of Donald Trump.
In any event, as both Ms. Vella and Ms. Ashcraft pointed out at the September 17 Council meeting, the California state legislature already has passed laws banning the sort of firearms used in the infamous mass shootings: so-called “assault weapons” and high-capacity ammunition magazines. True, a shooter could buy such devices in another state and bring them illegally into California (as the Gilroy shooter did), but it’s not clear what the Alameda City Council could do to enable local residents to “feel and be safe” against such tactics.
Second, the op-ed stated, “in Alameda, those who shouldn’t possess guns, people suffering personal traumas and instability, shouldn’t have them.” This, too, may very well be a righteous goal, as long as the two Council members aren’t contending that any sort of “personal trauma” or “instability” – like, say, a death in the family – should disqualify a local resident from possessing a gun. But there already are a host of state laws designed to keep guns out of the hands of those who shouldn’t have them.
One such law created the Armed Prohibited Persons System, under which law-enforcement officers may seize firearms from a person who once legally purchased a gun and then became barred from owning or possessing firearms as a result of a felony conviction, a mental-health judgment, or a domestic-violence restraining order.
Another is the law authorizing law-enforcement officers, family members, and now employers, co-workers, and teachers to seek a “gun violence restraining order” or GVRO, allowing cops to seize firearms and ammunition from a person who owns (or is trying to get) a gun and who poses a significant danger to himself or others.
Chief Rolleri told us that the Alameda Police Department is compiling a list of persons with Alameda addresses who are in the APPS database. But he cautioned that the cops can’t search those places for illegally retained weapons simply because the person is in the database; there must be some other cause justifying the search.
In addition, the Chief told us that, since the gun-violence-restraining-order law has been in effect, A.P.D. has not had grounds to apply for a GVRO against any Alameda resident, nor have its officers been asked to arrest any Alamedan for violating a GVRO obtained by someone else.
Chief Rolleri also pointed out that, in addition to these specific laws, Alameda cops seize illegally possessed firearms in other circumstances, such as when they discover the guns in the course of investigating another crime. He provided another chart compiled by his staff with the historical data:
Like Ms. Vella, we wonder what ordinances our Council could pass that would be more effective in preventing possession of dangerous firearms than the current state gun-control laws are. And we don’t think Chief Rolleri and his cops need a reminder from anyone sitting on the dais (or the stage) that such laws exist and ought to be enforced.
The op-ed identifies two more “focus” items, but they appear more concerned with gun safety than with gun violence. Alameda gun owners, Messrs. Knox White and Oddie write, “should store and operate their guns safely.” Likewise, “no child should die an accidental death in Alameda due to a carelessly maintained or unsecured weapon.”
Again, laudable goals. But if storage and maintenance by Alameda gun owners is a problem, a town hall meeting wouldn’t seem to be the best way to come up with a solution. Indeed, we would have expected Mr. Knox White to urge that this is the sort of issue that is better tackled by heeding the advice of experts than by listening to the views of ordinary citizens. At least that was his standard approach when he served on the Planning Board.
All this having been said, maybe something useful will come out of the town hall after all. Who knows?
We’ll end on a positive note: At the September 17 Council meeting, both Ms. Vella and Ms. Ashcraft brought up the potential burden the town hall might impose on City staff. (“We are sending our staff in a lot of different directions to staff various events,” the Mayor said.) Mr. Oddie responded that the burden would be minimal because he and Mr. Knox White would “do the heavy lifting.”
He kept his word. When we asked City Manager Eric Levitt if staff had prepared any written materials for distribution at the town hall, he said no, except for a flier put together by Public Information Officer Sarah Henry and posted on the City’s website and social media. Similarly, no one asked Chief Rolleri for any fact sheets to hand out to attendees, although, after the town hall was announced, he was invited to be a panelist.
So Messrs. Oddie and Knox White, it’s your show! Appropriately enough, the venue will be the Alameda Theater.
Council referral: 2019-09-17 Oddie-DK referral
Flyer: 1014 town hall flier