Fifteen years ago, Lee Guelff sat next to his dead brother, Officer James Guelff, as police came in twos to pay their respect to the officer who was gunned down in San Francisco by a man covered in body armor.
The stories he heard in that dim hospital room would serve as testimony when he traveled the country in an effort to ban violent felons from possessing body armor. The death of his brother — as well as another high-profile shootout in Los Angeles in 1997 — helped create the first law of its kind in California. About a dozen states would follow suit, and eventually Congress would pass its own version.
But on Dec. 17, that state ban was overturned because the statute does not cover all of the varying types of body armor. The 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles ruled the law “unconstitutionally void for vagueness” because the regulations are too difficult for violent felons to decipher.
San Francisco police Chief George Gascón immediately rallied law enforcement officers from across the state to apply pressure to legislators and the California Supreme Court to change the law. District Attorney Kamala Harris pledged to draft state legislation that would extend the body armor ban to all felons, not just violent ones.
And Lee Guelff is fighting again as well.
Dressed in a light-brown corduroy jacket and chestnut shoes, Guelff, 57, stood in sharp contrast to the row of cops with both dark uniforms and dark expressions at a news conference Wednesday at Pine and Larkin streets.
The intersection is where the family gathers every November to remember James Guelff, a husband and father of two.
On Nov. 13, 1994, Victor Boutwell opened fire on Officer Guelff when he was the first to arrive on a call about a man with a gun. Guelff managed to return fire, striking Boutwell several times, but Boutwell was wearing a helmet, vest and makeshift leg protection, said former police Chief Alex Fagan, who was the lead investigator at the time.
Boutwell shot and killed Guelff while the officer was reloading his revolver.
Lee Guelff says each visit to the place is a reminder of what damage can be done when a criminal is protected. His brother was the first to be killed in such a way. A handful of others would follow. He hopes the court’s latest change won’t lead to another.