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California Has More Than 100 Gun Laws. Why Don’t They Stop More Mass Shootings?

SACRAMENTO — California bans guns for domestic violence offenders. It bans them for people deemed a danger to others or themselves. There is a ban on large-capacity magazines, and a ban on noise-muffling silencers. Semiautomatic guns of the sort colloquially known as “assault weapons” are, famously, banned.

More than 100 gun laws — the most of any state — are on the books in California. They have saved lives, policymakers say: Californians have among the lowest rates of gun death in the United States.

Yet this month, those laws failed to stop the massacres of at least 19 people in back-to-back mass shootings. The tragedies in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay have confounded Americans who regard California as a best-case bastion of gun safety in a nation awash with firearms.

Inside the state, gun rights proponents say the shootings show that California’s strategy is a failure. Gun safety groups, meanwhile, have already begun mobilizing for more laws and better enforcement. As details emerge in the investigations, numerous shortcomings have been highlighted, even with California’s voluminous law.

For instance, the state’s regulatory net does not necessarily force gun owners to relinquish weapons that were legal for them to buy in the past but now are banned. California cannot remove guns from people who may have exhibited dangerous behavior, but aren’t properly flagged to courts or law enforcement. And the state must contend with the illegal gun trade, a river of unregistered “ghost” guns and the flow of firearms from neighboring states with less strict regulations.

More broadly, however, the shootings are offering a lesson in the limits of state power to stop American gun violence, even with the political will at all levels of the state government to do so. Recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions have thrown key California laws into question, and the most recent shootings themselves have highlighted the difficulty of using state law to balance safety and liberty.

Police and FBI officials at the scene of a mass shooting in Half Moon Bay.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“I don’t mean to sound forlorn, but I’ve been watching this for decades and I’m a gun control type guy, and I just see nothing coming out of it,” said Steve Wagstaffe, the district attorney in San Mateo County, where seven agricultural workers were fatally gunned down. “California has had some good laws, but they’re not as good as they could be.”

The shooting in Monterey Park, in Southern California, left 11 people dead and eight wounded at a ballroom dance studio. Police said the suspect, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, opened fire at a Lunar New Year party, then shot himself dead as officers approached the van in which he had fled.

Two days later, sheriff’s deputies in Half Moon Bay arrested 66-year-old Zhao Chunli hours after an explosion of workplace violence at two plant nurseries.

Both accused gunmen had previous brushes with law enforcement. Both appeared to have been in the throes of a mental health crisis. And both had highly regulated weapons that cannot be acquired legally in California without numerous safeguards. Yet both slipped through the overlapping public safety and health regulations that California imposes to mitigate the risk of gun death.

The weapon used by the gunman in Monterey Park — a Cobray M-11/9 semiautomatic pistol outfitted with a 30-round magazine and what appeared to be a homemade silencer wrapped in duct tape — is illegal to buy or sell in California. Manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s, the gun is an illegal “assault weapon” under the state’s definition, with an apparently threaded barrel, an illegal suppressor and the ability to accept a detachable magazine.

Yet in 1999, authorities said, Mr. Tran purchased the weapon in Monterey Park. Sheriff Robert Luna of Los Angeles County did not specify how he acquired the gun, which licensed retailers stopped selling decades ago in California, but said it was not registered in the state.

The sale, manufacture and import of high-capacity magazines also have been generally banned in California since 2000. But Mr. Tran’s might have been legal, gun rights experts say, if he bought it before it was outlawed or during a weeklong window in 2019.

The Star Ballroom, where people were gunned down in a mass shooting.Credit…Mark Abramson for The New York Times

The exception arose from a well-known critic of state gun laws, Judge Roger T. Benitez of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, a federal judge who once compared the AR-15 assault rifle, used in many mass shootings, to a Swiss army knife, in that both are “a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”

Judge Benitez later stayed his own ruling, pending an appeal, that the state magazine ban violated the Second Amendment, but sales of large capacity magazines spiked in the state in the interim.

California also requires extensive background checks to prevent the sale of guns to people who might harm themselves and others. People with felony convictions are barred from gun ownership for life, and even certain misdemeanor convictions can mean a decadelong ban.

Sheriff Luna said Mr. Tran had been arrested in 1990 for unlawful possession of a firearm. It is unclear if he was ever convicted, and law enforcement officials are still examining how he was able to purchase his weapons. Gun law experts said California’s laws would not have prevented Mr. Tran from legally buying a gun if he was not formally charged or convicted, or if he was convicted of a nonviolent misdemeanor and had completed his probation.

In Half Moon Bay, a former roommate of the accused gunman had in 2013 successfully sought a temporary restraining order, alleging that Mr. Zhao had threatened to kill him and tried to suffocate him. Yet Mr. Zhao told authorities the Ruger semiautomatic he had used in Half Moon Bay had been legally purchased two years ago in California. Mr. Wagstaffe said investigators were still looking into where and how he acquired the gun.

Restraining orders can disqualify a person from owning guns in California. But court records show the temporary order against Mr. Zhao was never made permanent, and it expired in July 2013.

California also has a “red flag” law that allows police, family members, employers, co-workers and others to petition a court for a gun violence restraining order to remove firearms from people who may be a threat to themselves or others. But those laws do not work if nobody uses them.

The number of gun violence restraining orders issued in the state has risen to nearly 1,400 in 2021 from 85 in 2016. But that law is an underused resource, experts say.

A 2021 study by the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, found that although gun violence restraining orders had been available in California for five years, two-thirds of the Californians surveyed had never heard of them.

Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, who directs the program, said many mass shooters signal their intentions in advance, or leave hints in their planning. At any point in time in California, he said, one in eight adults knows at least one person they believe is at risk of harming someone else or themselves, research shows.

One model may be the city of San Diego, where the city attorney, Mara Elliott, has requested more than a thousand gun violence restraining orders since 2017. This month, the city requested and won the removal of a gun from an individual who threatened to kill people at a local hospital.

“I think most people second-guess their judgment. They think, ‘I don’t know who to call,’ or ‘I don’t want to bother law enforcement, it’s probably nothing,’’’ Ms. Elliott said. “Now our community knows to make phone calls.’’

Acquaintances and court records painted the Monterey Park suspect, Mr. Tran, as an embittered, paranoid and divorced loner. In Hemet, Calif., where he lived, police said he came to the station two weeks before the shooting to complain, without evidence, that he was the victim of fraud and theft and that his family had previously tried to poison him.

In Half Moon Bay, Mr. Zhao told NBC Bay Area in a jailhouse interview that he “was not in his right mind” and had felt mistreated for years at his workplace. Authorities confirmed a report that the accused gunman appeared to have snapped after a supervisor billed him $100 for a forklift accident.

In Half Moon Bay, a gunman accused of killing his co-workers said he was “not in his right mind.”Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

But neither man appears to have alarmed anyone enough to seek a court order to take away their weapons. Neighbors and acquaintances said they did not know they were armed, suicidal or dangerous.

Victims of mass shootings make up about 1 percent of overall gun deaths in the United States, according to federal gun homicide data analyzed by the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The risk of dying in a mass shooting is even lower in California, the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California recently found. Nationally, suicides account for just over half of all gun deaths.

But what mass casualty events lack in numbers, officials say, they often make up in fear and calls for political action. Last year, after mass shootings in Buffalo, N.Y., and Uvalde, Texas, California fast-tracked the passage of more than a dozen new gun laws.

A memorial in Half Moon Bay for victims of a mass shooting that left seven people dead.Credit…Brian L. Frank for The New York Times

Gun rights advocates say more laws miss the point: Only a lawfully armed citizenry can ultimately ensure safety.

Mass murders are already illegal, says Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. “What do we want to do? Make them illegal-er?”

But Jesse Gabriel, a Los Angeles-area Democrat in the state Assembly who co-chairs a legislative working group on gun violence prevention, said the group has already moved up its February meeting to discuss new legislation.

Proposals include a state excise tax on ammunition and guns, a measure to add three years to an existing ban on gun ownership for people who have had domestic violence orders filed against them, a proposal to make the possession of an unregistered “ghost” gun a felony and a bill to let people suffering a mental health crisis put their own names on a “do not sell” list. A campaign to expand awareness of gun violence restraining orders also is underway.

Also in the pipeline, he added, is a bill to align the state’s laws on permits to carry concealed weapons in public with a sweeping June Supreme Court ruling that upended gun control laws in at least a half-dozen states, including California. Applauded by gun rights groups, the decision has unleashed a barrage of court challenges to California gun laws, including the bans on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines that are pending now before Judge Benitez.

Rob Bonta, the California attorney general, said the concealed carry revision is essential, as are tighter gun regulations.

“Is there something new that hasn’t been done?” Mr. Bonta said. “That’s what we’re asking ourselves.”

Adeel Hassan and Soumya Karlamangla contributed reporting.

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