On the Front Lines:
A Profile of Andres Soto

By Christina Dyrness

Andres Soto is a warrior and a soldier.

But rather than making his point with guns or his fists, he pitches his battle against violence.

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 weapon.

"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 Hispanic population.

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 down."

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 world crumbling."