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Gun laws aren’t going to stop mass shootings.
Those gun laws – which are under threat thanks to a recent Supreme Court decision – only go so far in a country awash in guns, where there’s almost no action at the federal level, and where there is so much variation in gun laws from state to state and even within states.
But it would also be wrongheaded to look at a string of unrelated mass shootings that spanned from Southern California to Northern California in recent days and argue that all gun laws don’t work.
Thousands of Californians die from gun violence each year – 3,449 in 2020, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That is a heartbreaking number. But California also has one of the lowest gun death rates in the country – 8.5 per 100,000 people, according to the CDC’s figures.
California’s rate of gun homicides – 3.9 per 100,000 people – is lower than Texas’ rate – 6.1 per 100,000 people, according to data compiled by Everytown. Much of what tougher gun laws appear to cut down on are suicides. Gun-related suicides fell in California between 2011 and 2020. They rose in Texas and most of the country.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who was already eyeing even more gun control measures before these shootings, had strong words about how his efforts are hampered by the federal government and the Supreme Court.
“The Second Amendment is becoming a suicide pact,” Newsom told CBS News, although he added he supports a sensible right to bear arms. “I have no ideological opposition with someone reasonably and responsibly owning firearms and getting background checks and being trained and making sure they’re locked so their kid doesn’t accidentally shoot themselves or a loved one.”
He said all countries have mental health problems, but only the US has a consistent mass shootings problem.
“There’s a patten here in the United States of America – these mass shootings – that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” he said, arguing that maybe safety activists should focus more intently on large capacity clips. “Just insane. There’s no justification. Period. Full stop,” he said.
Recognizing gun rights activists might view his efforts to push new laws as curbs on their freedom, Newsom preemptively pushed back.
“I just want to take away weapons of war that are illegal on the streets of California and should be illegal across the United States,” he said.
The problem for Newsom and anyone else looking at new gun laws is that a recent Supreme Court decision already swept the rug out from under all the existing gun laws, including the California ban on high-capacity magazines Newsom mentioned.
CNN’s Tierney Sneed wrote about this in October. In a landmark Supreme Court case decided last June, New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, conservative justices led by Justice Clarence Thomas created a new standard for state gun laws.
“Thomas said that the only regulations that can be deemed constitutional are ones (that) don’t encroach on conduct plainly covered by the Second Amendment’s text and that are ‘consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition’ – meaning they have a parallel in the type of regulations in place at the time of the Constitution’s framing,” Sneed wrote.
Gun rights advocates have used that ruling to challenge gun laws in states across the country, especially in California.
Justices also remanded back to lower courts a challenge on the ban on high-capacity magazines California voters approved in 2016. In this way, California’s gun laws are very much in jeopardy.
Clearly the laws did not stop the recent shootings. A gun wrestled away from the Monterey Park shooter on Saturday at a second location in nearby Alhambra was not legal in California, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna.
In the Half Moon Bay shooting on Monday, authorities have said the semi-automatic handgun was legally registered to the suspect and nothing about his past indicated a red flag.
Stephen Gutowski is founder of The Reload, an independent publication, and a CNN “Guns in America” analyst. He ticked off some of the gun control measures already in place in California, making it the state with the strongest gun laws.
Gutowski: California passed the nation’s first “assault weapons” ban in 1989 and has been updating it continually since then. Its current iteration is the strictest in the country. The same is true for magazine limits, which passed in 2000.
The state went further than most others when it passed a ban on possession of previously grandfathered magazines in 2016. Although, that has been blocked by the courts since that time in a case called Duncan v. Becerra.
California also has a licensing system for gun purchases and ammunition purchases. It bans the sale of most handguns that don’t have a magazine safety or loaded-chamber indicator. It also effectively bans nearly all handguns that were made after 2013 by requiring they include “microstamping” technology, which no gun manufacturer in the world actually offers.
Gutowski expects California to enact more laws, but also for those laws to face problems in court, particularly after the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision.
For The Reload, Gutowski recently wrote about how gun advocates in Tennessee and Texas were able to defeat age restrictions on people under 21 carrying handguns.
He shared some of his thoughts with CNN on how these recent shootings could affect California’s gun laws.
Gutowski: The recent attacks make new gun legislation in California more likely. But California legislators pass new gun restrictions every year regardless. They were already working on a new law restricting gun carry in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision before these shootings happened.
While it’s likely the state will pass new restrictions, it’s even more likely California will be forced to abandon some of their current gun laws due to federal litigation. Nearly all of their gun laws are from the past 40 years or so. The standard set by the Supreme Court in Bruen requires modern gun laws to be rooted in historical tradition and have analogues (though, not identical matches) that go back to the founding era.
There are dozens of cases against the state’s various restrictions playing out right now, and the court just vacated and remanded the Ninth Circuit’s decision upholding the state’s magazine ban in Duncan v. Becerra.
Another “Guns in America” analyst is Jennifer Mascia, a senior news writer and founding staffer of The Trace.
Her analysis is that any US state will have trouble cutting down on gun violence when there are so many guns in the US.
Mascia: As strong as California’s gun laws are, it’s still easier to get guns there than it is in Europe, or Canada, or Australia, or New Zealand. The US began regulating gun access when we already had millions of guns in circulation. Other countries didn’t do that, so they don’t have this problem.
But here the gun lobby holds tremendous sway, and gun companies just want to keep selling guns. And they’ve been able to – our gun laws have been weakened considerably over the last 30 years, thanks to gun industry lobbying.
Half the states have permit-less carry. So where are the gun companies in all this? This is a corporate responsibility story too. They can set safety standards themselves if they wanted to, but they’re not.
California’s gun laws also end at California state lines. Several mass shooters in recent years have gotten guns from Nevada. Gun violence experts and law enforcement sources I’ve spoken to over the last few days all say the same thing: It’s nearly impossible to eradicate this violence completely when there are 400 million guns in circulation.
And mass shooters often don’t display behavior that rises to the level of a gun ban. That’s a high bar – involuntary mental health commitment, a felony, or a domestic violence conviction. California does have a system to take guns from legal gun owners who become prohibited due to a crime, the Armed Prohibited Persons System, but there’s a backlog.
The bottom line: This is what happens when you don’t have a strong federal system of gun regulation. Guns have a 100-year shelf life. If we banned them tomorrow, we’d still have gun violence for generations.
What we need is an all-hands approach that involves the gun companies, public health experts, and gun owners deciding that this violence isn’t sustainable, and that the time has come to set safety standards.
Until we all decide as a culture that we’ve had enough, this will continue – and gun companies will continue to profit from this bloodshed.