Stephanie Timblin, center, high fives Angel Castro after she passed a test allowing her to buy a firearm at High Bridge Arms in San Francisco, Calif. on Friday, Sept. 25, 2015. The gun shop will be closing next month after a city supervisor required that all gun buys be recorded.
The Oni, a mythological troll that came to be a symbol and guardian of San Francisco’s last gun shop, is apparently no match for the city’s enduring distaste for what is sold inside.
The owner of High Bridge Arms, Japan-born Masashi Takahashi, is shutting down the 63-year-old store, employees said Friday, as city leaders consider yet again whether to toughen restrictions on gun sales.
The Mission District shop, decked out with Japanese paintings and autographed photos of target shooters, has discounted its rifles, pistols and signature T-shirts, with the devilish Oni, in anticipation of an Oct. 31 closing.
“I believe the laws that are closing the store are for the political benefit of those proposing them,” said shopper Michael Wehle, a software engineer in San Francisco who was buying a Berreta M9 pistol Friday. “The idea of a major city without a gun store. … I’m disappointed.”
While the closure will be celebrated in many circles, High Bridge Arms’ survival allowed the store to play a paradoxical role in shaping the scope of gun control nationwide. It’s the basis for several restrictive San Francisco gun laws that tested the boundaries of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.
Feeling burdened by S.F. laws
In response, the National Rifle Association challenged the laws, and the outcome often had national significance. Most recently, in June, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed to stand a San Francisco law banning the sale of bullets that expand or splinter upon contact.
“I feel like it’s the end of an era,” said Matt Dorsey, a spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera. “For years, whenever the Board of Supervisors or voters passed a law to restrict the sale of guns or ammunition, we were really only talking about one store — High Bridge Arms.”
On Friday, employees such as sales consultant and former Marine John Lopez were still serving a steady stream of customers. They were also lamenting the widespread view in the city that the way to fight the national epidemic of gun violence is to get rid of a lot of guns.
“If you impose all these laws,” asked Lopez, 25, “do you think that’s going to stop a criminal from getting a gun?”
Takahashi, the owner, has not specified why he is shutting down, though he and his employees have long said the shop and its customers are unduly burdened by San Francisco’s crusading gun laws.
San Francisco Supervisor Mark Farrell is pushing legislation that would require the video-recording of all commercial gun sales, as well as require businesses to give the Police Department weekly updates on ammunition sales.
“This legislation hasn’t even been voted on yet, let alone taken effect yet, so I find it incredibly hard to believe” that the store is closing because of the proposal, he said Friday. “Nevertheless, the entire purpose is to promote the public safety of our San Francisco residents in our neighborhoods that are feeling incredibly vulnerable right now in terms of public safety and their own personal safety.”
High Bridge Arms was opened in 1952 by Olympic pistol shooter Bob Chow, who sold it to Takahashi in 1988. Takahashi hasn’t changed the shop much and has allowed its “Gunsmith” sign to stand distinctly above Mission Street.
Relishing his status as the city’s lone firearms retailer, he sells T-shirts reading “San Francisco’s Last Gun Shop.”
By comparison, Sacramento has 24 registered gun dealers and Fresno has 45, according to the Office of Attorney General Kamala Harris.
Customers visiting this week included police officers, an occupational therapist and a stay-at-home mom, many of whom said they came to High Bridge Arms for the friendly, tight-knit staff. They said they’ll now have to shop at bigger chain stores on the Peninsula.
“All the politics in this city,” complained Angel Castro, 50, a Mission District regular who keeps a small collection of firearms. “You can’t even have a gun shop here for law-abiding citizens to enjoy.”
The store has had few run-ins with regulators, though in 1998 burglars were able to break in and steal more than two dozen handguns, rifles and pump-action shotguns.
In 2010, the shop closed as the owners sought to convert their increasingly valuable space into offices. But the city wouldn’t grant them a permit, and when they tried to reopen a few months later, they faced opposition from a neighborhood group arguing that gun sales made the area more dangerous.
San Francisco police officials said there was no evidence to back up the fear, though they forced High Bridge Arms to fortify the storefront and increase video surveillance.
Among those happy to hear about the shop’s planned closure was neighbor Annice Jacoby.
“It is very inappropriate to see guns here,” she said Friday. “Most San Francisco citizens would prefer a climate like England, where guns are not so much part of daily life.”
Mixed results on limits
San Francisco has a long history of enacting strict measures limiting the sale of guns and ammunition that has put it at loggerheads with gun advocates and gun manufacturers who say the city has violated the Second Amendment.
Some of the city’s efforts to tighten laws have been upheld, such as a 2014 ban on the possession of high-capacity ammunition magazines.
Others have failed, such as Proposition H, a near-complete ban on handguns that voters approved in 2005. The National Rifle Association sued on behalf of gun owners and dealers — and won in the courts. The initiative never took effect.