The New York Times article, on July 2, 1993, began, "San Francisco -- A gunman carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition terrorized a high-rise office building in the financial district here late this afternoon, killing eight people and wounding six others with a hail of automatic and semiautomatic fire before shooting himself to death."
The highrise was 101 California St. The gunman was 55-year-old Gian Luigi Ferri. And the bullets were fired from two TEC-9 handguns modified with a special trigger that allowed it to shoot faster. It was the worst mass killing in city history.
As Friday's massacre in Newtown, Conn. brings the gun control debate to the forefront, that 1993 shooting serves as an example of how high-profile gun violence can spur national policy change. It also shows how that change can erode as time dulls a tragedy's impact.
There is widespread concern that the tragedy in Newtown -- in which a gunman, later identified as 20-year-old Adam Lanza, forced his way into an elementary school and killed 20 students and 6 adults -- will fade into the back of the country's collective mind before meaningful changes can be made to try to prevent future tragedies.
If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation's security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.
Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not.
It was the particulars of the 101 California Street shooting that highlighted the deficiencies of 1993's established policies, and quickly induced reforms. Ferri began his rampage on the 34th floor then continued on to the 33rd and 32nd before turning the gun on himself when he encountered police officers in the stairwell, nearly 15 minutes after he fired the first shot. The SFPD, and every other other local police department, had not crafted a strategy for handling a shooting rampage in a skyscraper. Soon after the shooting, the police established a protocol for those situations, mandating that every officer go through special training for tracking down a gunman in a highrise. One victim had died after lying wounded and untreated for an hour. So the city overhauled its 911 emergency response system.
Most notably, though, the public learned about the devastating weapons Ferri used: military-style handguns that allowed him to fire 30 shots without reloading. The shooting led the U.S. Congress to pass legislation banning assault weapons, which outlawed 17 types of firearms, including the ones Ferri used. It was one of the most significant gun-control laws ever passed in American history.
"There is no reason for weapons of war to be used freely on the streets of America where they are weapons of choice for every assassin, terrorist, gang member, drug syndicate, drive-by shooter, Mafioso, or grievance killer," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who authored the policy, said in a speech on the Senate floor in November 1993, a few months after the shooting.
The sweeping reforms matched the public's shock. As the Times reported in its morning-after article:
A Police Department minister, the Rev. George Twigg-Porter, a veteran of 33 years on the force, said, "This is the worst thing I have ever seen."
In light of Friday's shooting, it appears there is public and political appetite for stronger gun control laws. Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), according to the Times, "said that he would hold hearings on Second Amendment rights." Sen. Joe Manchin III (R-W.V.), who received an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, said in an interview on MSNBC, "I don't know anybody in the sporting or hunting arena that goes out with an assault rifle." And Feinstein said she intends to introduce a bill that would ban ammunition clips that can hold more than 10 bullets.
That legislation, she has said, would also ban assault weapons. Because the original ban from 1994 -- the one brought about by the worst mass shooting in San Francisco history -- did not last. It expired in 2004 and has failed to pass Congress ever since.