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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Joan E Greve

California gun laws can’t stop mass shootings without federal support

Mourners pay respects to the victims of the shootings in Half Moon Bay in California in January 2023.
Mourners pay respects to the victims of the shootings in Half Moon Bay in California in January 2023. Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

The recent mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay have brought devastation, outrage and shock to Californians. As the state grieves the loss of 19 residents, one question continues to arise: how could this happen in the state with some of the strongest gun laws in the US?

California’s gun laws include bans on the military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines that have been used in many mass shootings. It is one of just two states, along with New Jersey, to receive an “A” rating from the gun safety group Giffords, based on the strength of its firearm regulations.

Gun rights proponents have cited the two shootings as evidence of the ineffectiveness of California’s laws, but groups like Giffords fiercely reject those arguments. California’s firearm mortality rate has declined dramatically in the years since tougher regulations were enacted, gun safety groups note.

But in a nation where firearms outnumber people, the groups say, such horrific attacks will continue without a coordinated federal response to gun violence.

“California is one state of 50,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice-president for law and policy at the gun safety group Everytown. “There’s just no question that strong, uniform federal laws are substantially better than a mixed bag of strong and weak state laws.”

California governor Gavin Newsom speaks after signing a gun control law.
California governor Gavin Newsom speaks after signing a gun control law. California has the highest number of laws restricting guns. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP


‘Gun violence across America requires stronger action’

Research indicates that California’s many gun laws have proven quite effective in reducing the number of deaths caused by firearms. According to the gun safety group Brady, California’s rate of firearm mortality rate declined by 55% between 1993 and 2017, compared to a decrease of 14% across the rest of the US in the same time period. Advocates credit the decline to California’s gun regulations, a number of which went into effect in the early 1990s.

“California has transformed itself in the past generation,” said Ari Freilich, state policy director at Giffords. “People came together time and again to strengthen gun safety laws [and] learn from tragedy.”

California now has 107 gun laws on the books, more than any other US state. In addition to the bans on military-style assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, California has a ban on gun silencers. Like 18 other US states, California has a “red flag law” that allows authorities to seize guns owned by those deemed to be a danger to themselves or others. In situations of domestic violence or workplace harassment, California residents can petition a court for a restraining order to have firearms taken away from their partner or employee.

The gun used in the Monterey Park shooting appears to fall under the state’s definition of an “assault weapon”, so it is unclear how the attacker was able to purchase the firearm in 1999, when California had already banned such weapons. The sale of large-capacity magazines like the one used in Monterey Park is now illegal in California, although that state ban may not have been in effect when the shooter purchased the magazine. Authorities have said that the semi-automatic weapon used in Half Moon Bay was legally purchased by the gunman.

Unfortunately, a gun violence restraining order was not issued before the attacks in Monterey Park or Half Moon Bay. As Freilich said, an important piece of lawmakers’ work must be ensuring that citizens know their legal options so they can be prepared to respond if they suspect potential gun violence.

“Sometimes it’s making sure the right judge files the right paperwork at the right time,” Freilich said. “That’s the kind of unglamorous work that will save a victim’s life.”

In addition to the need for more education around existing laws, Giffords released a memo outlining further legislative steps that California can take to reduce gun violence. The proposals include creating a gun violence prevention and victim recovery fund and strengthening restrictions on the sale and marketing of ghost guns, which are untraceable firearms often assembled at home from kits bought online.

Even if California legislators can enact those policies, the state still faces significant challenges. The conservative-leaning US supreme court has displayed its willingness to challenge state gun policies, ruling last year to strike down a New York law that placed strict regulations on carrying firearms in public.

And the looser gun laws of neighboring states pose another challenge. Many California residents can easily travel to Arizona, where assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not banned.

“In this country, a state’s gun laws are only as strong as its closest neighbor with weak gun laws,” Suplina said. “It’s important to remember just how easily weapons are bought and sold in neighboring states.”

That reality underscores the urgent need to pass more gun regulations at the federal level, Suplina and his allies argue. Last week, Joe Biden once again called on Congress to swiftly pass a nationwide assault weapons ban that could help prevent mass shootings in the future.

“Even as we await further details on these shootings,” Biden said, “we know the scourge of gun violence across America requires stronger action.”


‘California has the strictest gun laws’

Additional federal action on gun safety currently seems unlikely now that Republicans, who show little appetite for tackling the issue, have regained control of the House.

A student holds a sign for a gun control rally at the March for Our Lives protest in Los Angeles, California.
A student holds a sign for a gun control rally at the March for Our Lives protest in Los Angeles, California. Photograph: David McNew/Getty Images

The gun lobby and its allies on Capitol Hill have embraced a markedly different perspective on the lessons to be learned from the most recent tragedies.

In the days after the shootings that rocked his home state of California, Republican House speaker Kevin McCarthy dismissed questions about the possibility of enacting more federal regulations to combat gun violence.

“Having lived in California my entire life,” McCarthy said last week, “California has the strictest gun laws there are and apparently that did not work in this situation.”

Suplina attacked such talking points, which often surface in the wake of mass shootings that occur in liberal-leaning states, as “straw man arguments”.

“Advocates on the other side like to point to every aberration and say that that must mean that nothing is working, but we don’t do that in other areas,” Suplina said. “We don’t say that seatbelts don’t work because there’s an accident in the car that leads to a fatality.”

Despite widespread Republican opposition, Biden was able to sign one gun safety bill, the Bipartisan Safer Communities, into law last year. The bill expanded background checks for the youngest gun buyers and invested in mental health and violence intervention programs, but advocates acknowledge that the law does not go far enough.

Without a more robust, coordinated federal response to gun violence, every American state remains vulnerable to attacks, advocates say.

“California has the strongest gun safety laws in the country overall and some of the weakest gun safety laws in the western world,” Freilich said. “A lot of folks wonder how this could happen in California. Well, there are more than a million guns that were legally bought and sold in California last year.”

Tragedies like those in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay remind Americans of that painful truth, Suplina said. As California mourns another 19 lives taken by guns, this moment could serve as a call to arms for the many Americans seeking change.

“When we go through calamities like California has recently, more people step up to do more at the local, state and federal level,” Suplina said. “There really aren’t any communities that are immune from gun violence in America. And more and more people are taking action to do something about it.”

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