On the Front Lines:
A Profile of Andres Soto
Andres Soto is a warrior
and a soldier.
But rather than making his
point with guns or his fists, he pitches his battle
He didn't always see
things this way.
"There was a time in
my life that I thought that an armed insurrection against
the organized government was inevitable," said the
42-year-old from his cluttered office at San Francisco
General Hospital, where he works as director of policy
for the Pacific Center for Violence Prevention. "I
had the same belief in the Second Amendment that the NRA
does, but from the leftist perspective."
As a Chicano growing up in
the East Bay city of Richmond, Soto had plenty of
opportunities to witness violence in his immediate
community. And, like nearly everyone else in the
inner-city, he can recite a litany of instances when hand
gun tragedies hit close to home. But after receiving a
degree in Political Science at UC Berkeley in the early
70's and spending some time as intern at the state
capital, Soto came away armed with something very than a
"I learned how to
achieve power without monetary strength," he said.
Soto returned home, raised
two sons, and became involved in community service. He
got a job with the city of Richmond, developing
employment programs, doing vocational training and
negotiating contracts with employers. He joined the board
of directors of Familias Unitas, a non-profit mental
health and social service agency working with Richmond's
It was there that Soto
decided that violence prevention was essential for his
community. "I saw that any steps that could be taken
to protect people from violence and bad mental health had
to be taken." Soto, who had celebrated President
Reagan's assassination attempt in 1981 by going down to
the local bar for drinks, decided that handguns were a
bigger enemy than the government he felt had often
betrayed his community.
"We were all led down
the wrong path by the Second Amendment," he said.
"Then you see how that lie worked to shape popular
culture and the permissive attitude that allows product
dumping in certain areas. You see how guns are getting
into Richmond and destroying all these lives."
A federal grant-funded
program for violence prevention in Contra Costa County
hired Soto to coordinate its efforts on the ground level.
Working with community groups, Soto decided that
prevention would work best by going to the source. He
went after gun dealers.
"I got a printout
from the county and realized there were 35 gun dealers in
Richmond," he said. "There were only two
entries in the phone book, but here was a list with names
that I recognized. There was even someone dealing guns
who lived on my street."
In response to the
program's campaign, Contra Costa County voters passed
laws in 1995 calling for a ban on residential gun dealers
and tighter restrictions on other gun merchants. The
violence prevention program attracted local, statewide
and even national attention.
"We were the only
game in town as far as gun control," Soto said.
Meanwhile, the Woodlands
hills-based Wellness Foundation awarded a $1.3 million
grant to create the Pacific Center for Violence
Prevention, a youth violence think tank in San Francisco.
Soto worked closely with the director of the program,
Andrew McGuire, on gun legislation efforts. In May, 1996,
he joined their staff as director of policy. Succinctly,
the Pacific Center has a short-term goal to get
Sacramento to adopt a statewide ban on junk guns like the
infamous Saturday Night Special, a long-term goal to
transfer the focus of the juvenile justice system's
resources from incarceration to prevention, and an
overall goal to involve as many young people as possible
in all of these policy discussions.
Soto is optimistic about
the success of the movement so far. "It's been an
amazing kind of ride, so to speak," he said. He
points to ordinances restricting handgun sales and junk
gun bans being passed up and down the state as a measure
of success. That, and the last election.
"The Democrats didn't
expect to win back the State Assembly but they did and
now gun legislation is right at the top of the
agenda," he said. "We were actually invited to
come speak to Assembly members in December when just last
year, every piece of gun legislation was voted
The lessons Soto learned
in Sacramento as an intern have served him well in
promoting anti-gun initiatives. "By mobilizing
people at the local level, you can counter the NRA at the
capital," he said.
And for the NRA, this
warrior shows no mercy. "If I was a softer person,
I'd feel sorry for the NRA guys because they're getting
fooled," he said. "It's all part of their old