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How California Got Tough on Guns 

A report from CALmatters

The modern American gun debate began on May 2, 1967, when 30 protesting members of the Black Panther Party marched into the California Capitol with loaded handguns, shotguns and rifles.

As photos of gun-toting radicals from Oakland hit front pages across the country, many Americans were shocked to see who was embracing the Second Amendment. In California, as in most states at the time, there were few restrictions on carrying loaded weapons in public.

That soon changed. The Panthers' efforts to "police the police" already had led Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford to propose legislation to ban the "open carry" of loaded firearms within California cities and towns. After the Panthers showed up in the Capitol, his bill sailed through and was signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. (Yes, that Reagan). It's hard to say which now seems more unlikely: that two dozen revolutionaries could legally stroll into the state Assembly chamber with semi-automatic rifles or that a Republican governor would champion stricter gun control.

In the years since, California's progressive politicians have layered on restrictions while gun owners and manufacturers continue to try to find their way out of them.

The battle continues. New Gov. Gavin Newsom denounced "a gun lobby willing to sacrifice the lives of our children to line their pockets." A National Rifle Association spokesperson predicts the Trump-altered U.S. Supreme Court means "winter may very well be coming for gun laws in California." So while Newsom and the Democratic Legislature try to add new restrictions, gun advocates are going to court to overturn existing ones.

HOW STRICT ARE CALIFORNIA'S GUN LAWS COMPARED TO OTHER STATES'?

California has a reputation for being tough on guns. That reputation is well-earned.

Researchers at Boston University have counted 109 California laws that in some way restrict "the manner and space in which firearms can be used." They include regulations on dealers and buyers, background check requirements and possession bans directed at certain "high risk" individuals.

By their count, no other state out-regulates California when it comes to sheer quantity of rules. And we've held that top spot since at least 1991, the year the researchers started counting.

The Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group, awarded California its only "A" grade in its 2017 state gun law scorecard.

"There are not a lot of As out there," said Ari Freilich, the organization's California legislative affairs director. "California has driven the conversation nationally."

In contrast, Guns and Ammo magazine labeled California the fifth-worst state for gun owners. (Washington, D.C., was the top jurisdiction, followed by New York.)

HOW DOES GUN VIOLENCE IN CALIFORNIA COMPARE TO ELSEWHERE?

The United States is not an especially crime-ridden nation. Overall crime rates here are roughly on par with other high-income countries. Where the country stands out — way out — from its international peers is in gun violence.

The U.S. has a gun death rate (all causes of death, including suicide and accidental death) of roughly 12 per 100,000 people. According to research out of the University of Washington, that puts the U.S. in the company of Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Recently guns became the second leading cause of death of children and teens across the country.

At 7.9 gun deaths per 100,000, gun violence in California is much lower than the national average. But that isn't particularly low by international standards. We have roughly the same gun fatality rate as the Philippines. In 2017, 3,184 Californians were killed by guns, 25 of them in Humboldt County, which has a gun death rate that outpaces that of the nation and is nearly twice that of the state.

According to the Humboldt County Coroner's Office, the county saw a total of 323 gun deaths from 2004 through 2018: 233 suicides, 84 homicides, two accidental shootings and four of undetermined causes. That averages out to about 21.53 gun deaths a year or 15.74 per 100,000 people.

HOMICIDES AND SUICIDES BY GUN CLAIM VERY DIFFERENT VICTIMS

As in the rest of the country, gun violence in California is not equally distributed.

Firearm fatalities are a disproportionately male tragedy. According to research from University of California at Davis, men are more than seven times more likely to be killed by someone else with a gun than women. Men are also more than eight times more likely to take their own lives with a firearm.

While mass shootings seize public attention, they do not claim the most lives. Half of gun deaths in California (and 72 percent in Humboldt County) are suicides — a disproportionate number of them among white men over the age of 50. Most gun homicides, meanwhile, are not high-profile acts of mass carnage, but random outbursts of violence that strike communities least likely to draw news crews.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF VIOLENCE

There is some good news.

Over the last decade and a half, the average annual homicide rate has fallen nearly in half in California. That's a steeper drop off than across the nation as a whole. According to a UC Davis study, most of that decline here has occurred in the state's biggest urban areas. Contrary to the stereotype of gun-ridden big cities, there is now no significant difference in the rate of gun violence between rural and urban areas in California. (In Humboldt County, meanwhile, homicide rates have nearly doubled since 2013.)

DO CALIFORNIA'S GUN LAWS WORK?

Supporters of California's rigorous gun controls have a pretty compelling argument on their side: California has tough gun laws and it has relatively low rates of gun violence. And that's a relationship that generally holds true across all 50 states.

But as with any thorny sociological question — particularly one where lives, livelihoods, deeply held values and constitutional law all hang in the balance — it's probably more complicated than that.

Do tight gun laws lead to lower deaths? Or is it that states with less gun violence (due to different cultural attitudes about guns or varying economic and demographic patterns) are more likely to adopt tighter gun controls?

There seems to be relatively strong evidence that denying firearms to at least certain "high-risk" individuals leads to lower levels of violence. Three separate studies found that in states that keep guns away from those under domestic violence restraining orders, gun homicide rates between partners are 9 to 25 percent lower. California has such a law on the books. A similar study found that denying guns to those with misdemeanor violent crime convictions reduced their chances of being rearrested for another violent crime by 30 percent. California has this type of gun ban in place, too.

Do comprehensive background checks keep guns away from those who shouldn't have them?

One study concluded California's law had relatively little effect — suggesting vendors skirting the rules and lax enforcement could be why. But another study estimated that when states require gun vendors to get licensed, conduct background checks and are subject to inspection, gun homicides can be expected to fall by more than 50 percent. An overview of the research from the RAND Corporation found suggestive but "limited evidence that background checks reduce violent crime."

And concealed carry laws?

A landmark economic study from the mid-1990s found evidence that making it easier for people to carry reduced crime, supporting the NRA's "good guy with a gun" theory. But more recent research using the same statistical techniques but with a larger dataset claims to show the exact opposite.

"What probably has the greatest impact are a number of things acting together — just the pure volume of laws," said Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital and professor at Harvard University. "We are studying legislation and not randomized control trials. But overall, when you look at systematic reviews of legislation on homicides and suicides, it is fairly clear that legislation designed to place reasonable restrictions on how firearms are sold or maintained or stored does lead to decreased fatality rates."

THE POLITICS OF CALIFORNIA'S GUN DEBATE

Gavin Newsom's first press conference as governor-elect took place on the morning of Nov. 8, 2018, just 11 hours after a gunman opened fire at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks killing 13 people, including himself. "The response is not just prayers," Newsom said. "The response cannot just be more excuses. The response sure as hell cannot be more guns."

A few days later he doubled down on Twitter, calling the National Rifle Association "a fraudulent organization" and "completely complicit" in the massacre.

No one familiar with Newsom's career could have been surprised. He was the driving force behind Proposition 63, a 2016 ballot measure that put sweeping new restrictions on ammunition sales and banned high-capacity magazines (like the ones used in Thousand Oaks).

"We're preparing for the worst," said Chuck Michel, head of the California Rifle and Pistol Association.

Pro-gun arguments once resonated in California. In 1982, a proposition to cap the number of handguns in California lost by 63 percent of the vote — taking the gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Tom Bradley along with it. The reason, according to a Washington Post analysis from the time, was that "people who did not ordinarily bother with politics and politicians were coming out in droves to save their unrestricted right to bear arms."

But that silent, well-armed majority failed to materialize in 2016 when Proposition 63 passed — also with 63 percent of the vote.

Nearly two-thirds of respondents in a recent survey from the Public Policy Institute of California said that gun laws should be "more strict" than they are now. Included in that group were 49 percent of the conservatives surveyed.

According to Craig DeLuz, the California director of legislative affairs for the Firearms Policy Coalition, those numbers reflect a misconception of what's already on the books.

"If there are reasonable firearms regulation out there, we've already passed that point," he said. "A lot of people are completely unaware that most of the things that the average voter believes to be 'reasonable' are already in place in California."

BRAVE NEW WORLD: THE TECH FUTURE OF GUNS

California is often considered the innovation hub of the United States. Why should it be any different for guns?

The state's tough firearm laws have led "many entrepreneurs to 'innovate' ways around the law," said Freilich of the Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence.

Consider the case of the bullet button. In 2001, California expanded its ban on new "assault weapons" to include any modern semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine and at least one of a handful of other features, including a protruding pistol grip or an adjustable stock. To get around the ban, many gun owners came up with a solution: Install a small lock on the magazine that can be easily opened with a small tool (or the tip of a bullet). Legally speaking, that tiny bit of hardware would transform a contraband assault weapon with a detachable magazine into a perfectly legal rifle with an ever-so-slightly-less detachable magazine.

In 2017, California lawmakers caught on and amended the law. That prompted the development of yet another workaround device: the Patriot Pin. And so the arms race over arms design continues in California.

With so many regulations now in place on newly manufactured firearms, many gun enthusiasts are simply building their own guns — or at least, they're putting together the final pieces.

One of the most popular firearm products in California are "80 percent" or "unfinished" receivers. Receivers are the central frame of a firearm onto which all the other components are connected. "Unfinished" simply means it lacks a few cavities and holes. But legally, that makes all the difference. Under both federal and California law, an unfinished receiver is just an elaborately shaped piece of metal. Under a law passed in 2016, Californians with home-finished receivers were given until Jan. 1 of this year to register their gun with the state. It's not clear how widespread compliance has been.

Still, plenty of lawmakers are worried about the spread of unidentifiable "ghost guns." In 2017, a man with two home-built semi-automatic rifles killed five people and shot up an Elementary School in Tehama County. Last year, a proposal to designate unfinished receivers legally as "firearms" passed both the Assembly and Senate, but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown.

"By defining certain metal components as a firearm because they could ultimately be made into a homemade weapon, this bill could trigger potential application of myriad and serious criminal penalties," Brown wrote in his veto message.

But the bill will be back.

GUN BILL WATCH: 2019

With a newly bolstered majority and an NRA-foe as governor, Democrats who support gun control in Sacramento have some plans for the 2019 legislative session. Here are few highlights:

SB 55 (Sen. Hannah Beth-Jackson of Santa Barbara): Would place a 10-year gun ban on anyone convicted of repeated drunk driving.

SB 61 (Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge): Would limit gun buyers to one firearm purchase per month. A 1999 law already applies the restriction to handguns. Gov. Brown vetoed this proposal twice.

SB 172 (Sen. Anthony Portantino of La Cañada Flintridge): Would make it a crime to leave a minor or a person banned from owning a firearm alone in a home with an unlocked gun.

AB 18 (Assemblymember Marc Levine of Marin County): Would impose an excise tax on gun sales to fund grants for violence intervention and prevention programs.

AB 276 (Assemblymember Laura Friedman of Glendale): Would require any adult to store a firearm within a lockbox, safe or any other "safety device" certified by the California Department of Justice for gun storage.

THE GUN FIGHT IN COURT

California's Democratic attorney general, Xavier Becerra, is holding the line as gun rights advocates push back in ways that could have dramatic consequences for state law.

Duncan v. Becerra

In 2016, state voters passed Proposition 63, which banned magazines with a capacity to hold 10 rounds or more. Though a 2000 law restricted the sale and manufacture of new high-capacity magazines, existing owners had been grandfathered in. Proposition 63 effectively un–grandfathered them. Five gun owners and the California Rifle & Pistol Association (the state branch of the National Rifle Association) sued. Though the case has yet to go to trial, a federal district judge put a temporary hold on the Proposition 63 magazine ban, writing in his decision that the state's "desire to criminalize simple possession of a firearm magazine" is "precisely the type of policy choice that the Constitution takes off the table." The court of appeals upheld that hold.

Rhode v. Becerra

Proposition 63 also requires Californians to get their ammo only from state-licensed vendors in face-to-face transactions. Out-of-state vendors hoping to get into the California cartridge* market are therefore required to go through a certified California vendor to broker the transaction. A pending lawsuit filed by the California Rifle and Pistol Association (NRA) and California-born Olympic skeet shooter Kim Rhode contends the new law puts an excessive burden on "interstate commerce" and that it violates the Second Amendment.

Pena v. Horan

Since 2001, California has only allowed handguns to be sold, imported, or manufactured in California if they are considered "not unsafe" by the state. The Department of Justice maintains a list of these approved firearms, known as the "roster." In 2009, gun rights activists sued, arguing that the roster impinges on gun owners' Second Amendment rights and that the rationale the state uses to keep certain guns off the list is "arbitrary and capricious." In recent years, as the state has placed more restrictions on new firearms, opponents of the roster have said it amounts to a "slow-motion handgun ban." The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether to take up the case.

State of Washington v. United States Department of State

In 2015, the U.S. State Department settled a case with the Texas nonprofit Defense Distributed, allowing it to publish its 3D-printable gun designs online. California joined a multi-state lawsuit filed by the State of Washington against the federal government. The states argue that allowing the release of those codes violated their right to regulate firearms within their own borders. A federal judge placed a temporary restraining order on the codes five days after their publication. But this being the Internet, that might as well have been five years. The files are out there.

New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. New York

The U.S. Supreme Court in early 2019 agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to a New York City law that does not allow most handgun* owners to take their firearm outside their homes unless they're going to an authorized shooting range. California has a lot at stake in the outcome. In 2010 the Supreme Court affirmed every American's individual right to bear arms "in the home for the purpose of self-defense." An expansive ruling on the case from New York, as some court watchers predict, could find that the right to bear arms exists outside the home as well, potentially sweeping away California's restrictions on both open and concealed carry in a single decision. "Winter may very well be coming for gun laws in California," the head of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, Chuck Michel, told NRATV. "We may be able to knock more than a few of those out."

Thadeus Greenson contributed to this report.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

click to enlarge Gun related deaths, 2004 through 2018 - HUMBOLDT COUNTY CORONER'S OFFICE
  • Humboldt County Coroner's Office
  • Gun related deaths, 2004 through 2018
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