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Regional Interests

‘America’s Disease’: Gun Violence, Gun Control and Where California Goes From Here

In late May, a gunman opened fire at a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority light rail yard in San Jose, killing nine workers before turning the gun on himself.

The following week — on National Gun Violence Awareness Day — a federal judge in San Diego overturned California’s 32-year-old ban on assault weapons, ruling it a violation of the constitutional right to bear arms.

In his controversial 94-page opinion issued last Friday, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez said the state’s definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly allowed in most other states. He likened the AR-15 assault rifle, the weapon used in some of the deadliest U.S. mass shootings, to a Swiss Army knife, describing it as “a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”

State Democratic leaders were quick to lambast the ruling as a none-too-subtle effort to get the issue before the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court. Gov. Gavin Newsom, among others, slammed the judge as a puppet of gun rights groups.

“Judge Benitez is a stone-cold ideologue,” he said at a news conference Thursday at the San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. Flanked by California Attorney Rob Bonta, San Francisco Mayor London Breed and anti-gun violence advocates, Newsom called the judge “a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association.”

At the briefing, Bonta announced his move to appeal the ruling, calling it “disturbing and troubling and of great concern.” He said he also intends to ask the U.S. 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to extend a hold on the decision throughout the entire appeals process.

“The ban on assault weapons will not put an end to gun violence, but is one important tool the state has to protect the safety of Californians while also respecting the rights of law-abiding residents who choose to possess firearms,” Bonta said.

During an hour-long KQED radio special this week on gun control and gun violence, Bonta said Benitez’s decision runs contrary to six previous federal court rulings upholding assault weapons bans.

“Not only do I disagree with the court’s ruling, the overwhelming weight of the federal courts that have addressed this issue disagree with this judge’s ruling,” he said.

Benitez is no stranger to California lawmakers: The state is already appealing both his 2017 ruling against its nearly two-decade-old ban on the sales and purchases of magazines holding more than 10 bullets, and his ruling last year blocking a 2019 state law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.

Despite those challenges, Bonta said, California has passed and upheld some of the most important “common sense” gun laws in the nation, yielding one of the lowest levels of gun deaths, per capita.

Indeed, while gun violence claims the lives of roughly 3,000 Californians each year — the state, which has among the nation’s strictest gun laws — ranks 44th nationwide in per capita firearms deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“And so our assault weapons ban in California has been a cornerstone of our regime here to keep California safe for over three decades,” Bonta said.

But Benitez and other critics of California’s assault weapons ban argue that the target is misguided.

“I think the point the judge is trying to get across is that among the guns that are most dangerous, it’s not these rifles, it’s handguns,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, noting that more than half of gun deaths in California are suicides. Handguns are “far more dangerous than the AR-15 [semi-automatic rifle] in terms of total number of deaths and woundings. AR-15s are not used for suicides. It’s very hard to shoot yourself with a rifle.”

The assault-style weapons typically used in mass shootings, Blackman said, draw the most public attention, but are far from the biggest concern.

“These guns are not responsible for a large share of gun deaths, but they’re scary and they’re useful for marketing purposes” for gun control groups, he said. “The issue of mass shootings captures the national zeitgeist. But if we can be candid for a moment, it’s a very, very small percentage of gun deaths.”

That’s an argument that Bonta and many other gun control advocates bristle at, particularly in the aftermath of horrific incidents like the one two weeks ago in San Jose.

“I think, statistically minimizing mass shootings does not really recognize the horror and the devastation of them and the fear that they create,” Bonta said.

“I mean, these are things, mass shootings, that are happening in everyday places, in schools and workplaces, in churches and movie theaters,” he said. “And people are afraid to do everyday things because they think they can be a victim of mass shootings.”

Bonta said California’s gun control policies have proven effective in significantly reducing firearm deaths in the state. But he noted that more needs to be done, particularly in minimizing other types of gun deaths.

While he stopped short of advocating for any new state legislation, Bonta told KQED he planned to better promote and enforce existing rules that are too often underutilized, including the state’s so-called red flag law, which allows family members and police officers to ask a court to take firearms away from those believed to be a risk to themselves or others.

“This is a multifaceted issue. There’s no one panacea. There’s no one cure to our gun violence epidemic and to America’s disease,” Bonta said. “But every time we can take a step to make progress, we should.”

The fact that mass shootings only account for a small percentage of overall gun deaths in California is poor justification for deterring lawmakers from doing everything within their power to prevent them, Ari Freilich, state policy director for the Giffords Law Center, a gun control advocacy group, told KQED.

“Research is out there that shows that when assault weapon bans are in effect, even if shootings occur, they are less likely to be mass murder events,” he said. “This shouldn’t be an either or. It is wrong when people murder and it is wrong when the state doesn’t take really modest action to reduce the lethality and likelihood of those tragic events.”

Alongside that, he added, there’s an urgent need for “massively” increased investments in community-based gun violence prevention programs focused on reducing retaliatory violence and self-harm.

California could do much more to prevent gun violence, Freilich said, but because of the state’s robust efforts, residents here “are much, much safer than most Americans from gun violence, and that’s not an accident.”

He added, “Definitely more work to do. But California is making progress at a time other states are seeing spikes in gun violence.”

But despite its strong gun control laws, California certainly has no shortage of guns. An estimated 4.2 million residents here own some 20 million firearms, including 9 million handguns, according to a 2018 analysis by the Firearm Violence Research Center at UC Davis. That amounts to one in four California adults who live in a gun-owning home.

In addition to guns acquired lawfully in-state, a large number of the firearms in California are brought here illegally from neighboring states with looser restrictions, like Arizona and Nevada, explained Alain Stephens, West Coast correspondent for The Trace, a publication that investigates gun violence in the U.S.

“California is very much an intake state because of our robust gun control laws,” he told KQED.

The state’s gun control efforts, Stephens added, have also been stymied by various other legally questionable means of obtaining firearms. That includes transactions like straw purchases, in which guns are bought legally and then resold to other people, along with ghost guns — made from kits — which can be purchased without a background and have no serial numbers, and so can’t be traced.

With his city still reeling from the recent mass shooting at the VTA rail yard, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo this week proposed a series of local measures aimed at reducing gun violence, including one that would crack down on gun straw purchases in the city, and another that aimed at banning ghost guns. Liccardo also proposed legislation — sure to be challenged in court if it passes — that would require all gun owners in the city to be insured and to pay a fee to “compensate the public” to help cover the steep cost of emergency services linked to gun violence.

“It’s my strong belief that certainly the Second Amendment protects the right of individuals to own guns, but it doesn’t require taxpayers to subsidize that right,” he said.

Liccardo said the recent tragedy in his city has thrust the gun control debate front and center.

“I think a lot of members of the community are just recognizing this really can happen anywhere,” he said.

Lawmakers aren’t looking to take firearms away from law-abiding gun owners, Liccardo insisted.

“What we’re trying to do is recognizing that we live in a country with 300 million guns,” he said. “How can we make it safer?”

Copyright 2021 KQED