After the Sacramento shooting, the state with the most gun laws may soon get more
The shooting in Sacramento that left six people dead over the weekend has prompted urgent calls across the state for more gun control. The question is, how much further can California go?
The weekend shooting in Sacramento, Calif., that left six people dead and at least 12 others wounded happened just a few blocks from the Capitol in a state with the nation's strongest gun laws.
California has the most gun laws of any state: 107, according to the State Firearm Laws project at Boston University.
But even when states make it harder to get guns, gun violence still occurs all too often. This was one of the three most deadly shootings in the country this year — and it came just weeks after four people were killed at a church in Sacramento County.
Two people have been arrested on gun charges so far for this weekend's shooting — a flash of violence that has led politicians from President Biden all the way down to city councilors in the California capital to demand that more be done to address guns.
"The scourge of gun violence continues to be a crisis in our country, and we must resolve to bring an end to this carnage," Gov. Gavin Newsom said in the aftermath of the shooting.
The question is, in a state that already has more gun restrictions than anywhere else in the U.S., how much further can the law go?
California already has the nation's strongest gun laws
California not only has the nation's most gun laws, the state is also ranked No. 1 by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence on its annual gun law scorecard. (The only other state to get an A rating is New Jersey.)
Ari Freilich, the state policy director at Giffords, says that's because overall, California has enacted the strongest laws over the largest number of areas. The state restricts access to military-style weapons, assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. It was the first state in the nation to require point of sale background checks for ammunition, and also requires firearm sales and transfers of ownership to be conducted through licensed dealers for background checks. California law restricts firearm access for people convicted of hate crimes and other violent acts, as well as for those who are subject to a restraining order.
But making sure all these measures are effective has meant legislators have had to craft new laws to close loopholes and keep up with technology and gun traffickers.
"In part by doing more, there is constant need to reevaluate what's working and close gaps," says Freilich. "And there's been a strong commitment from the state and from the leaders of the state to continuing to address those gaps, continuing to work toward more effective enforcement implementation and replication of what's working."
Lawmakers are considering at least 24 more bills
In December, Newsom directed his administration to work with the legislature on a measure modeled after Texas' controversial abortion law, known as SB 8. The Texas law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and anyone else who helps a woman obtain an abortion. If they prevail, the law entitles them to a minimum of $10,000 in damages plus attorneys' fees.
Newsom called for a bill that would allow private citizens to sue anyone who manufactures, distributes, transports, imports into the state or sells assault weapons or so-called ghost guns. As in Texas, those who prevail could be awarded statutory damages of at least $10,000 per violation plus costs and attorneys' fees. A version of the bill was introduced in February.
"If states can now shield their laws from review by the federal courts that compare assault weapons to Swiss Army knives, then California will use that authority to protect people's lives, where Texas used it to put women in harm's way," Newsom said.
But there is much more legislation under consideration. So far this year, California lawmakers have proposed more than two dozen gun safety bills or bills for investments in violence prevention programs, Freilich says.
Another bill under discussion would ban ghost guns in their entirety, not just their parts. Ghost guns can be assembled from kits and do-it-yourself components. These kits allow people to build guns without serial numbers. They are essentially untraceable, hence the "ghost" moniker.
"We've seen a market [of ghost guns] explode in recent years, essentially in circumventing the strong gun safety laws by offering unassembled gun builder kits, and because they're not defined as completed firearms, they aren't subject to state or federal firearm laws yet," says Freilich.
Online retailers can essentially sell the kits anonymously, without any background check, sale record or serial number. In 2020, California reportedly accounted for 65% of all ghost guns seized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Laws will take effect in July that will "require repeat sellers of these products to be licensed by the state and sell their products pursuant to a background check and sale record," says Freilich.
People find ways to skirt gun laws
But in a country with hundreds of millions of firearms, even states with strict gun laws have a difficult time keeping illegal guns off the streets.
"States like California that have taken strong action on gun safety are to some extent at the mercy of states ... next door," says Freilich. He pointed to the example of Arizona, where "today, you can buy an unlimited quantity of assault weapons with hundred-round magazines with no background check."
It's no accident that Hawaii, roughly 2,500 miles from the mainland, has the lowest rate of deaths by gun violence in the country. (California has the seventh-lowest rate.)
The fact that a mass shooting happened in Sacramento doesn't mean that the state's gun laws don't have an impact, according to Freilich. But he says much more work still needs to be done.
The shooting in Sacramento "happened despite some serious, effective efforts to protect people in the state," Freilich says.
California's laws will face big court tests
By adopting the country's strongest gun measures, California takes on another task: defending the constitutionality of those laws in a country where gun rights and gun control are a seemingly never-ending battle.
Last June, for example, a federal judge held California's assault weapons ban unconstitutional, calling it a "failed experiment." A few weeks later, a three-judge panel on the Court of Appeals blocked that decision for now. The case could eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court.
The state's measure banning high-capacity magazines has also faced challenges in federal court. It too could end up before the Supreme Court.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.