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SACRAMENTO -- California bans guns for domestic abusers. He bans them for people who are considered dangerous to others or to themselves. There is a ban on large-capacity magazines and a ban on silencers that muffle noise. Semi-automatic weapons of the type known colloquially as "assault weapons" are notoriously prohibited.
100+ Gun Laws —most of each state- are on the books in California. They saved lives, politicians say: Californians are among themlowest death rate from guns in the United States.
This month, however, those laws failed to stop the massacres of at least 19 people in consecutive mass shootings. The tragedies at Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay have confused Americans, who consider California the best bastion of gun security in a country awash with guns.
Inside the state, gun rights advocates say the shootings show California's strategy has failed. Gun safety groups, meanwhile, have already begun to mobilize for more legislation and better enforcement. As details came to light during the investigation, numerous flaws were found, even with California's extensive law.
For example, the federal regulatory network does not necessarily force gun owners to give up guns that were legal to them in the past but are now banned. California cannot withdraw guns from individuals who have engaged in potentially dangerous behavior but have not been properly flagged in court or law enforcement. And the state must contend with the illegal arms trade, a flow of unregistered "ghost" guns, and the flow of firearms from neighboring states with less stringent regulations.
More broadly, however, the shootings offer a lesson in the limits of the state's power to stop American gun violence, even when the political will to do so exists at all levels of state government. Recent decisions by the US Supreme Court have challenged key California laws, and the recent shootings themselves have highlighted the difficulty of applying state law to balance security and liberty.
"I don't want to sound helpless, but I've watched this for decades and I'm a gun control guy and I just don't see anything coming from it," said Steve Wagstaffe, the district attorney for San Mateo County, where seven farm workers were shot. "California has good laws, but they're not as good as they could be."
The shooting in Monterey Park, in Southern California, left 11 dead and eight injured at a ballroom dance studio. Police said the suspect, 72-year-old Huu Can Tran, opened fire at a Lunar New Year party and then shot himself as officers approached the van he fled in.
Two days later, the sheriff's deputies walk inhalf moon bayarrested Zhao Chunli, 66, hours after an explosion of workplace violence at two nurseries.
Both accused shooters had previous problems with law enforcement. Both seemed to be going through a mental crisis. And both had heavily regulated guns that cannot be legally acquired in California without numerous safeguards. However, both escaped the overlapping public safety and health regulations California enforces to reduce the risk of death from a firearm.
ÖGun used by a gunman at Monterey Park— a Cobray M-11/9 semi-automatic pistol, equipped with a 30-round magazine and what appears to be a homemade, tape-wrapped silencer — is illegal to buy or sell in California. Manufactured in the 1970s and 1980s, the weapon is an illegal "assault weapon" by state definition, with an apparently threaded barrel, an illegal suppressor, and the ability to accept a detachable magazine.
However, in 1999, authorities said, Tran bought the gun in Monterey Park. Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna didn't say how he acquired the gun, which licensed retailers stopped selling in California decades ago, but said it wasn't registered in the state.
The sale, manufacture, and import of high-capacity cartridges has also been banned in California since 2000. But Mr. Tran could have been legal, gun law experts say, if he bought it before it was banned or during onea week windowim 2019.
The exception came from a well-known critic of state gun laws, Judge Roger T. Benitez of the US District Court for the Southern District of California, a federal judgewho oncecomparedthe AR-15 assault rifle, used in many mass shootings, to a Swiss army knife, as both are "a perfect combination of home defense weapon and national defense equipment".
Judge Benitez later stood by his own decision pending an appeal that the state's ban on magazines violated the Second Amendment, but sales of large-capacity magazines meanwhile rose sharply in the state.
California also requires extensive background checks to prevent gun sales to anyone who could harm themselves and others. People with criminal convictions are banned from gun ownership for life, and even certain misdemeanor convictions can mean a decade-long ban.
Sheriff Luna said Tran was arrested in 1990 for illegal gun possession. It's unclear if he was ever convicted, and law enforcement is still investigating how he was able to purchase his guns. Gun rights experts said California law would not have prevented Tran from legally purchasing a gun unless he had been formally charged or convicted, or had he been convicted of a nonviolent offense and served his probation.
In Half Moon Bay, a former roommate of the accused shooter successfully applied for a restraining order in 2013, alleging that Zhao threatened to kill him and tried to choke him. However, Zhao told authorities that the semi-automatic Ruger he used at Half Moon Bay was legally purchased in California two years ago. Wagstaffe said investigators are still investigating where and how he acquired the gun.
Injunctions can bar a person from possessing a gun in California. However, court records show that the restraining order against Zhao never became permanent and expired in July 2013.
California also has a "red flag" law that allows law enforcement, family members, employers, employees and others to file a petition in courtForce of arms restraining orderRemove firearms from persons who may pose a danger to themselves or others. But these laws don't work if nobody uses them.
The number of gun restraining orders issued in the state rose from 85 in 2016 to nearly 1,400 in 2021. But this law is an underutilized resource, experts say.
AViolence Prevention Research Program 2021 studyat the University of California, Davis, found that two-thirds of Californians surveyed had never heard of them, even though California had had gun restraining orders for five years.
Doctor Garen J. Wintemute, who directs the program, said many mass shooterssignal your intentions in advance, or leave tips in your planning. At any given time in California, he said, one in eight adultsknow at least one personThey believe they are at risk of harming someone else or themselves, research shows.
An example might be the city of San Diego, where city attorney Mara Elliott has filed for more than 1,000 gun restraining orders since 2017. This month, the city requested and obtained the removal of a gun from a person who threatened to kill people at a local hospital.
"I think most people question his judgement. They're like, 'I don't know who to call,' or 'I don't want to bother law enforcement, it's probably nothing,'" Elliott said. "Now our community knows how to make calls."
Acquaintances and court records painted the Monterey Park suspect, Mr. Tran, as a bitter, paranoid, divorced loner. In Hemet, California, where he lived, police said he showed up two weeks before the shooting to complain without evidence that he was a victim of fraud and theft and that his family had previously tried to poison him .
Em Half Moon Bay, Sr. Zhaosay to NBC Bay Areain a prison interview that he was "out of his mind" and had felt abused at his workplace for years. Authorities confirmed a report that the accused gunman apparently freaked out after a supervisor billed him $100 for a forklift accident.
But none appear to have alarmed anyone enough to seek a court order to remove their guns. Neighbors and acquaintances said they were unaware they were armed, suicidal or dangerous.
Mass shooting victims account for about 1% of all gun deaths in the United States, according to federal firearm homicide data.analyzedby the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety. The non-partisan California Institute of Public Policy recently found that the risk of dying in a mass shooting is even lower in Californiafound. National, Suicidesinvoicefor just over half of all firearm deaths.
But what mass-injury events lack in numbers, officials say, they often make up for in fear and calls for political action. Last year, after mass shootings inBuffalo, New York,eUvalde, Texas, California has accelerated the passage of more than a dozen new gun laws.
Gun rights advocates say more and more laws are missing the point: only legally armed citizens can guarantee safety.
Mass murder is already illegal, says Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California. "What do we want to do? make them illegal?
But Jesse Gabriel, a Los Angeles-area State Assembly Democrat who chairs a legislative working group on gun violence prevention, said the group has already brought forward its February meeting to discuss the new legislation.
The proposals include a stateExcise duty on ammunition and weapons, a measure ofadd three yearsto propose an existing gun ban for persons served with domestic violence ordersPossession of an unregistered "ghost" weapon is a crimeand a bill to let people suffering from a mental health crisisput their own names on a "do not sell" list. A gun violence restraint awareness campaign is also underway.
It is also ongoing, he added, ainvoicewith a wide-ranging campaign in June to bring state gun-carrying licenses into line with the stateSupreme Court decisionrepealed gun control laws in at least half a dozen states, including California. The ruling, welcomed by gun rights groups, sparked a series of legal challenges to California gun laws, including the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, which are now pending before Judge Benitez.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said a review of concealed carry is as important as stricter gun regulations.
"Is there anything new that hasn't been done yet?" said Mr. bonta "We ask ourselves that."
Adeel Hassan and Soumya Karlamangla contributed to the coverage.
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