Press Release

MEMO: Stronger Gun Laws in California: Separating Fact from Fiction


TO  Interested Parties
FROM   Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence
DATE   November 22, 2019
RE  Stronger Gun Laws in California: Separating Fact from Fiction

Last week, the State of California suffered three mass shootings in the span of four days. These attacks—at a school in Santa Clarita, a family home in San Diego, and a football watch party in Fresno—claimed 10 lives and left 10 other people grappling with life-altering trauma and gunshot wounds, including a nine-year old boy named Ezequiel, who is in critical condition and fighting for his life in the hospital after his mother and three brothers were shot dead beside him.  On Wednesday, another mass shooting left four people shot in Richmond, California, and on Thursday, another left five people shot in Long Beach. Thankfully, all nine victims are expected to survive. 

Already in November, mass shootings have terrorized other communities across the country, including San Angelo, Texas; Tolleson, Arizona; Detroit, Michigan; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Nacogdoches, Texas; Toledo, Ohio; Houston, Texas; Conyers, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Vidalia, Georgia; Detroit again; Little Rock, Arkansas; Memphis, Tennessee; Kansas City, Missouri; Belle Glade, Florida; Cleveland, Ohio; Newark, New Jersey; and Everett, Washington.

The families and communities touched by all of these tragedies will never be the same. They will sit at Thanksgiving tables next week next to empty seats, carrying the excruciating pain of the violent loss of a singular human person. 

In the wake of three mass shootings in California, the gun lobby has predictably argued that the fact that shootings still occur in states like California with strong gun safety laws proves that efforts to protect the public from gun violence are futile.  

They’re wrong.

Gun violence impacts all of us and no corner of the country is spared. It is still an intolerable public health and safety crisis, even in states that have led the nation in the fight for gun safety. But shootings in California do not prove that protecting the public from gun violence is futile, any more than the existence of car accidents proves that we should abandon speed limits, driver’s tests, airbags, and seatbelts.

Gun Laws Work 

In Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s annual Gun Law Scorecard, our policy experts grade and rank the strength of each state’s gun safety laws. The trend is clear, year after year: states with stronger gun safety laws have much lower rates of gun death on average. California has the highest grade on our most recent scorecard and the strongest gun safety laws in the nation. As a result of the state’s commitment to policy innovation and evidence-based reform, Californians are significantly safer from violence than most Americans.

Tragically, California’s gun safety laws were not enough to protect the victims of last week’s shootings, or the 61 people the state loses on the average week to gunshot wounds. But in recent years, they have saved thousands of lives.  

California’s Crisis a Generation Ago Drove Change  

A generation ago, California had relatively weak gun safety laws and some of the highest rates of gun death and injury in the nation. According to CDC fatal injury data, in 1993, California had the 3rd highest rate of gun homicides in the country and the 16th highest rate of gun deaths overall. The City of Los Angeles alone was burying more than 1,000 murder victims per year, and treating thousands more for life-altering gunshot wounds. At the time, minors under 18 were over 56% more likely to be murdered with a gun in California than the rest of the nation.

But Californians came together to strengthen their laws and make their communities safer, transforming the state into a national leader on gun safety, and one of the safer places in the nation. By 2017 (the most recent year for which CDC fatal injury data is available), California had the 7th lowest rate of gun deaths in the country. Gun homicides fell by 62% in California, dropping by nearly twice as much as the rest of the nation. Gun suicides fell nearly in half in California, compared to a 5% drop nationally. Among minors, gun homicides dropped in California by 85%. By 2017, minors were about half as likely to be shot to death in California compared to the rest of the nation.

The most recent CDC fatal injury data also shows that:

  • On average, kids 12 and under are nearly three times more likely to be murdered with guns in other states compared to California
  • California’s gun suicide rate is about half the national average
  • California’s gun homicide rate is about 20% below the rest of the country
  • California’s rate of fatal gun accidents is 40% below the national average

These aren’t just numbers or statistics: they’re people. Put another way: if California had the same gun death rate as the rest of the nation, the state would have lost nearly 14,000 more people to gunshot wounds from 2007–2017 alone. And if the national gun death rate was as low as California’s over this period, nearly 100,000 Americans who died from gun violence would have survived instead.

In short, gun safety policy matters.  

California: a Stark Contrast to Washington DC 

California’s proactive record on gun safety presents a stark contrast with President Trump and congressional leaders in the US Senate, who have, with extensive backing from the gun industry and the NRA, resisted efforts to pass even minimal gun safety legislation. While states across the country have followed California’s lead to pass meaningful gun safety legislation, without a federal solution, American communities remain at risk. 

The Senate has refused to consider legislation that would require background checks on all gun sales, establish extreme risk laws, or prevent domestic abusers and convicted stalkers from having guns, restrict the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines and military-style weaponry, and meaningfully invest in community-based violence intervention initiatives in our cities. While refusing to advance gun safety measures, Trump and McConnell have instead pushed to weaken federal gun laws by attempting to ease the regulation of silencers and armor-piercing ammunition, and to purge records from the FBI background check system.  

California has pursued a different path and has already largely filled these gaps at the state level. 

As lieutenant governor, Gavin Newsom partnered with our organization to draft and enact the most comprehensive gun safety ballot initiative ever passed by US voters. That voter initiative, the Safety For All Act, made California the first state in the nation to require a point-of-sale background check on ammunition purchases, as well as firearms, and the first state to require proof of compliance from every person convicted of a firearm-prohibiting crime, including domestic violence offenses, to demonstrate that they relinquished all firearms to a dealer or law enforcement agency. The initiative also included provisions to curb gun trafficking, strengthen background check systems, regulate gun sellers, and ban military-style large capacity magazines.

In his first year as governor, Gavin Newsom has also already signed an important package of gun safety reforms, including legislation to:

  • Triple the state’s investment in violence intervention programs
  • Codify the CalVIP grant program into law to ensure California’s new investment in violence intervention initiatives funds the most effective programs in communities with the greatest need
  • Regulate ghost gun sellers and require in-person background checks to purchase essential firearm components
  • Limit bulk purchases of firearms
  • Prevent people subject to out-of-state domestic violence restraining orders from acquiring guns in California
  • Expand legal standing to petition courts for extreme risk laws
  • Require local law enforcement agencies to develop plans to implement and utilize the state’s extreme risk law to prevent suicides and mass shootings 
  • Expand the California Department of Justice’s ability to remove illegally owned firearms
  • Regulate unlicensed firearm dealers and manufacturers 
  • Strengthen efforts to prevent firearm suicide
  • Strengthen California’s child access prevention law
  • Prohibit people who have been convicted of violating the child access prevention law from accessing guns for 10 years
  • Train healthcare providers on counseling patients about reducing risk of firearm death and injury

There is much more work to do in the state, even though California has the strongest gun safety laws in the nation. Giffords will continue to press legislators to expand California’s investment in violence intervention initiatives like CalVIP that have helped achieve enormous reductions in violence in cities across the state. We will continue to fight to improve implementation of California’s extreme risk law, relinquishment laws, and domestic violence protections, to increase transparency and accountability around gun sales and trafficking, and to strengthen efforts to protect Californians against the proliferation of “DIY” ghost guns assembled from unregulated firearm parts.

Giffords will be actively engaged in efforts to learn from last week’s tragedies and the shootings that claim lives every day across the state and nation, to ensure we do everything we can to prevent the next tragedy from occurring.