101 California: A decade later: Lawyers widow still fighting for gun control legislation

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Jack Berman was murdered 10 years ago. Another Jack Berman will be murdered tomorrow. Dozens of Jack Bermans are gunned down each and every day.

It has been a decade since Jack Berman — the real Jack Berman, a San Francisco lawyer and Jewish activist — was shot and killed along with seven others in the 101 California St. massacre, the city's worst-ever shooting spree. But to remember Berman and forget the scores of other Americans shot to death on a daily basis is appalling, according to his widow.

"One of the things I find a little upsetting about all of the focus on 101 California is that every single day, if you take the isolated incidents throughout this country, many more people are dying from gun violence. And you hardly hear anything about it," said Carol Kingsley.

"People tend not to get up in arms when it happens in a poor neighborhood. They say it's drug-related or this-related or that-related. That's a real cop-out. Here, people and the media focused on how this was an environment you'd usually think was safe. A downtown law office. And it happened to well-educated, white-collar workers. The message was this could happen to anybody at any time at any place."

The place was an innocuous Financial District high rise. The time was July 1, 1993. The perpetrator was Gian Luigi Ferri, a 55-year-old failed businessman who felt he had been badly represented by a law firm in the building he was now storming. Armed with a pair of Tec DC-9 assault weapons and a handgun, he opened fire at the law offices of Petit & Martin. Within a few short minutes he had gunned down and killed eight people including Berman, 35, fellow Jewish lawyer Allen Berk, and he wounded six more. He then turned the gun on himself.

The incident sent shock waves through the city.

"What made this one different from eight people being shot somewhere else was this was at a law office. There were a number of lawyers involved and people with a fair amount of education. They had the skills and tools to work the system afterwards," said Kingsley, herself a lawyer.

"We know how laws are created, how to work a judicial system by bringing about lawsuits. We have the connections, the friends and the resources to do that."

Not long after the massacre, President Clinton signed the Brady Bill into law. Named after President Reagan's former press secretary James Brady, who was left brain damaged after a 1980 attempt on the president's life, the bill had been floating around Washington, D.C., for more than a decade. One year later, Clinton signed an assault weapons ban.

Kingsley can rattle off the legislation she believes has made the nation safer in the last 10 years: limitations on the number of guns one person can buy in a month, child safety locks, the banning of "Saturday Night Special" handguns in hundreds of cities, and California's sweeping assault weapons ban, to name a few.

Represented by Berman's close friend Fred Blum, Kingsley unsuccessfully sued several gun manufacturers, but ran into a state law providing immunity to gun companies. Working legislatively, she and others managed to have the immunity law repealed, and 15 other states have since followed suit.

But a federal bill that would provide gun companies nearly blanket immunity has already passed the House of Representatives, and the 1994 assault weapons ban is set to expire next year. Gun control advances have given Berman's death some meaning, said Kingsley. But she worries that the next few years could change all of that.

"I think Jack would be very satisfied that if he had to lose his life early, that activism would come out of it. And legislative changes have been brought about," she said.

"Ten years later, people are getting on with their lives. [My son] Zack and I are going on with our lives, and I think they're good lives, happy lives. But that doesn't erase the loss of a person being violently torn out of our lives. My son is 11, and he's never known his father. And that doesn't change for him."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.