Unexamined Premises

San Francisco, 1978, Dianne Feinstein and Gun Control

Senator Dianne Feinstein of California has now released her hit list of weapons that would be banned under her proposed “gun control” legislation. They include the usual suspects, including the AK-47 rifle — which is only the most widely used rifle on planet Earth — and the dreaded AR-15, a weapon that strikes fear and terror into tender hearts just at the sight of it.

Nowhere on the list, though, do I see “police service revolver” — the .38 caliber handguns that were standard issue in American police departments for decades, and which were in use in November of 1978 when former San Francisco city supervisor Dan White shot and killed mayor George Moscone and supervisor Harvey Milk with one of them. And it is this tragedy, coming right on the heels of the Jonestown massacre (in which 918 people were killed, mostly by drinking poison), to which Sen. Feinstein, in a bitterly ironic twist, owes her entire state and national political career.

I know, because I was there, working as a reporter and chief classical music critic for the San Francisco Examiner.

The murders came as the city was reeling from a solid week of worsening news from Guyana, where congressman Leo Ryan and several others had been murdered during an ambush at the Port Kaituma airstrip as they prepared to fly back to the U.S. Among the dead were an Examiner photographer, Greg Robinson, with whom I had recently worked on a story; another of our reporters was badly injured. San Francisco — where Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple had been headquartered until it fled to the jungles of Guyana — was just returning to normal.

On the morning of Nov. 27, 1978,  I left the Examiner offices early in the morning to catch a plane for Chicago, where I was covering the world premiere of Krzysztof Penderecki’s opera, Paradise Lost, at the Lyric Opera. I went directly from O’Hare Airport to the Lyric in order to attend that afternoon’s dress rehearsal, and immediately ran into several of my national colleagues, who greeted me with: “What the hell is going on in San Francisco?”

I assumed they were talking about Jonestown, which just that morning had finally ceased to dominate the front pages of the city’s newspapers. (The headline in the first edition of the Ex that day was something like, “Trade Deficit with Japan Widens.”)  But no — they were talking about something else.

Harvey Milk and George Moscone.

That something else was the murders that day of Moscone and Milk by White, a former firefighter and city cop who killed them both with his loaded service revolver, which he had brought (along with an extra ten rounds of ammo in his coat pocket) to City Hall that day as he pleaded with Moscone to re-appoint him to the supervisor’s seat he had so rashly given up a couple of weeks earlier. Feinstein, who had seen White exiting Moscone’s office after he’d emptied his revolver into the mayor and reloaded, was also the first to find Milk’s body. And it was left to her to make the tragic announcement, catapulting her to instant national recognition. Even today, I cannot watch this without getting chills: it was one of the finest examples of grace under pressure (Hemingway’s definition of courage) in modern American political history:

Here’s a transcript of the pertinent part of a police interview with White shortly after he turned himself in after killing Moscone and Milk:

Q Dan can you tell Inspector Erdelatz and myself, what was your plan this morning? What did you have in mind? 

A I didn’t have any, any devised plan or anything, it’s, I was leaving the house to talk, to see the Mayor and I went downstairs, to, to make a phone can and I had my gun down there.

Q Is this your police service revolver, Dan?

A This is the gun I had when I was a policeman. It’s in my room an ah. . .I don’t know, I just put it on. I, I don’t know why I put it on, it’s just. . .

Q Where is this gun now, Dan?

A I turned it in to Officer ah. . .Paul Chignell who I turned myself in to at Northern Station. I, I. . . . . . . .

Q You turned yourself in, I wasn’t aware of that.

A I turned myself in at Northern Station to Officer Paul Chignell who, who I could trust and I, I know would do things properly. An then, an then I, I went to the, to the Mayor’s office.

Q You went directly from your residence to the Mayor’s office this morning?

A Yes, my, my aide picked me up but she didn’t have any idea ah. . .you know that 1 had a gun on me or, you know, I just was going to the Mayor to, to see if he was going to reappoint me and if not, the reasons why. And I went in to see him an, an he told me he wasn’t going to reappoint me and he, and he wasn’t going to, intending to tell me about it. He had some, he told me he had a press conference scheduled and he was going to announce it at the press conference. Didn’t even have the courtesy to call me or tell me that I wasn’t go­ing to be reappointed. Then ah. . .I got kind of fuzzy and then just my head didn’t feel right and I, then he said, Let’s go into the, the back room an, an have a drink and talk about it. An ah. . . .

Q Was this before any threats on your part, Dan?

A I, I never made any threats.

Q There were no threats at all?

A I, I. . . .oh no.

Q When were you, how, what was the conversation, can you explain to inspector Erdelatz and myself the conversation that ex­isted between the two of you at this time?

A It was pretty much just, you know, I asked, was I going to be reappointed. He said, no I am not, no you’re not. And I said, why. He said, he said well I’ve had people in your district say they don’t want you and I, I reiterated that I told him before that these were people that had brought false charges against me and had been dog­ging me since I’ve been in office and that he had been in politics and he understood that there are going to be people that dislike you, you, not everybody as a 100% supporter but I told him that oh, you know, an overwhelming majority of the people in my district wanted me as their supervisor and I told him how a person told me last night that they had on their own gone out with neighbors and gathered over a thousand signatures in one day, my constituents, to keep me in of­fice. He knew that and he told me, it’s a political decision and that’s the end of it, and that’s it.

Q Is this when you were having a drink in the back room?

A No, no, it’s before I went to the back room and then he could obviously see, see I was obviously distraught and upset and then he said, let’s go in the back room and and, and have a drink and I, I’m not even a drinker, you know I don’t, once in a while, but I’m not even a drinker. But I just kinda stumbled in the back, went, went, went in the back room and he sat down and he was all, he was talk­ing and nothing was getting through to me. It was just like a roaring in my ears an, and then em. . . . .it just came to me, you know, he.. . .

Q You couldn’t hear what he was saying Dan?

A Just small talk that, you know it just wasn’t registering. What I was going to do now, you know, and how this would affect my family you know an, an just, just all the time knowing he’s going to go out an, an lie to the press an, an tell ’em, you know, that I, I wasn’t a good supervisor and that people didn’t want me an then that was it. Then I, I just shot him, that was it, it was over.

Q Was he, was he using the telephone at the time or going to use the phone?

A No.

Q Not any time. . . .

A I, I don’t even know if there’s a phone in that back room.

Q What happened after you left there, Dan?

A Well, I, I left his office by one of the back doors an, an I started, I was going to go down the stairs and then I saw Harvey Milk’s aide across the hall at the Supervisors an then it struck me about what Harvey had tried to do an I said, well I’ll go talk to him. I said, you know, at least maybe he’ll be honest with me, you know, because he didn’t know I had, I had heard his conversation and he was all smiles and stuff and I went in and, like I say, I, I was still upset an ah. . . .then I said, I wanted to talk to him an, an, an just try to explain to him, you know, I, I didn’t agree with him on a lot of things but I was always honest, you know, and here they were devious and then he started kind of smirking cause he knew, he knew that I wasn’t going to be reappointed. And ah, . . . .it just didn’t make any impres­sion on him. I started to say you know how hard I worked for it and what it meant to me and my family an then my reputation as, as a hard worker, good honest person and he just kind of smirked at me as if to say, too bad an then and then I just got all flushed an, an hot an I shot him.

Upon Moscone’s death, Feinstein — as president of the Board of Supervisors — was instantly elevated to the mayoralty, where she ably served a couple of terms (she was, believe it or not, a moderate Democrat back then). She ran unsuccessfully for governor of California but quickly won election to the U.S. Senate in 1992, in which she has served ever since.

Here’s Feinstein years later, reflecting on the Moscone-Milk murders:

As luck would have it, on May 21, 1979, I was covering an event (a PDQ Bach concert) in the War Memorial Opera House — which is directly across Van Ness Avenue from City Hall — and thus found myself smack in the middle of the “White Night” riots that followed in the wake of the jury’s verdict in White’s double-homicide trial: voluntary manslaughter, with diminished capacity, instead of first-degree murder with special circumstances, which would have qualified White for the death penalty.  Instead he got seven years in jail, of which he served five. White killed himself in 1985. 

Driving to the Opera House, I heard the report of the verdict on my car radio, and decided that I would park well away from City Hall that evening. I’m glad I did. City Hall was trashed that night, windows smashed, cars set on fire, and ugly confrontations everywhere:

The “White Night” riots

I suppose it’s no wonder, then, that Sen. Feinstein has long made gun control one of her chief issues. But as her proposed ban list (which will never be approved by a Senate filled with vulnerable Democrats) illustrates, nothing she’s advocating would have saved the lives of Mayor Moscone or Harvey Milk on that awful fall day 34 years ago, when all it took was a police six-shooter, some extra ammunition, and a poor, lost, and angry soul willing to break multiple laws in order to revenge himself on political foes.

Until legislators come up with a way to stop that, the rest of it is just grandstanding — however deeply felt the personal motives behind infringing the Second Amendment may be. Because in the Moscone-Milk case, it wasn’t the gun.  It was the shooter.

As it always is.

Related: Ted Cruz Locked and Loaded to Defeat Feinstein’s Gun Ban

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