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California’s Strict Gun Rules have Helped but Haven’t Completely Eliminated Violence

California has a reputation as a tough place to buy a gun.

It is where background checks and mandated waiting periods for the purchase of weapons are located. It is one of just eight states and Washington, D.C., that have a statute that outlaws so-called military-style assault rifles. Additionally, Texas was one of the first states to pass a red-flag law in 2016, which enables law enforcement to seize a person’s weapons if they are deemed to be a danger to themselves or others.

The gun-control advocacy group Giffords has rated California’s hodgepodge of gun restrictions as the nation’s toughest.

But Saturday night’s horrific mass shooting at a Monterey Park dance hall demonstrates how the state’s strict gun laws are unable to completely prevent gun violence in a nation where gun ownership is widely regarded as a constitutionally protected right, firearms can be freely transported between states with wildly divergent laws, and gun-control laws are peppered with exceptions.

Law enforcement are seen outside the site in Torrance, Calif., where a man alleged to have killed ten people in Monterey Park, California, was believed to be holed up, on Jan. 22, 2023.

However, compared to most other states, California still has a far lower gun violence problem, which proponents attribute to the laws already in place.

As of Sunday afternoon, neither the type of firearm used in the massacre nor the gunman’s method of obtaining it had been disclosed by the authorities.

California’s stricter gun control laws were prompted by a spate of massacres decades ago, including the murder of children in a Stockton schoolyard in 1989 and a mass shooting in a downtown San Francisco law office in 1993.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was one of the leading proponents of a 1994 law that banned assault weapons nationwide for ten years. After the federal measure’s 2004 expiration date, it was not extended.

Despite this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that California has one of the lowest rates of firearms-related fatalities in the country. With 8.5 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2020, it was the ninth-lowest state in the country, far below the state average of 13.7. The rate for Texas was 14.2. The rate in Georgia was 17.7. Mississippi had the highest rate, with 28.6 fatalities per 100,000 people.

The Public Policy Institute of California, a neutral group that researches the politics and policies of the state, discovered that from 2019 to 2021, the state’s death rate from mass shooting occurrences was lower than the national average.

“Compared to citizens of other states, Californians are about 25% less likely to die” in those kinds of events, according to the institute.

California legislators are persistent in their efforts to enact stricter gun control measures, making their state a testing ground for new weapons legislation and a frequent focus of criticism from organizations like the National Rifle Association. The NRA earlier this month warned that the “usual appetite for gun control” appears to be there in California’s incoming state legislature session.

In a conscious nod to the contentious Texas legislation allowing people to sue abortion providers in court, the state’s overwhelmingly liberal legislature passed a bill last year allowing ordinary persons to sue anyone who deals in illegal firearms.

People watch police activity near the van linked to the Lunar New Year gunman in Torrance, Calif., on Sunday. (Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) of California supported the measure allowing for individual lawsuits against gun dealers. It would have given plaintiffs the ability to file lawsuits against people who illegally deal in assault-style rifles, high-caliber rifles, guns without serial numbers, or so-called “ghost” guns, which are occasionally made in home workshops without serial numbers or other means of tracking them.

However, a San Diego federal judge in December halted the law’s implementation. Other state gun control initiatives, such as those to restrict the capacity of ammunition magazines, have been rejected by judge Roger Benitez. The appeals court put the Benitez decision on ammo magazines on hold.

Benitez was referred to by Newsom as a “wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association” when he issued his injunction in the dealer lawsuits case last month.

Rob Bonta, the attorney general of California, joined 17 other attorneys general this week in requesting that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a New York legislation that makes it simpler for people to sue gun manufacturers. The verdict might have an impact on California’s efforts in this regard.

Gun-control advocates are concerned about the fallout from the Supreme Court’s ruling from a year ago that largely upholds law-abiding Americans’ right to carry a weapon outside the home for self-defense. The New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen decision has made concealed carry permits more widely available. In California, the decision resulted in an increase in permission requests and confusion among municipal officials regarding what to do next.

The assault weapons ban in California has also been challenged in court. However, contrary to what its name suggests, the ban is not as strict as many laws governing firearms.

According to state law, prohibited weapons are semiautomatic firearms with particular technological features, including a flash suppressor. Additionally, magazines for firearms must store no more than 10 rounds; the industry standard is a 30-round magazine.

However, that hasn’t stopped gun manufacturers from marketing what are typically considered to be military-style weapons, such as rifles in the AR-15 design, in states where assault weapons are outlawed.

Major producers provide a variety of “California-compliant” AR-15-style weapons that combine characteristics to stay within the bounds of the regulation.

By changing the grip or the magazine, Smith & Wesson offers M&P 15 rifle models that are intended to be legal in California. Seven persons were killed in 2022 in Highland Park, Illinois, during a Fourth of July parade with an M&P 15.

Additionally, Daniel Defense provides a DDM4 rifle that is legal to purchase in California. In 2022, a gunman opened fire on Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, killing 19 children and two adults.

These AR-15-style weapons look almost exactly the same when purchased in California as when purchased in other states.

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