With another mass shooting in California, number 19 since 1984, the state leads the nation in most deaths from these kinds of violent killings—but only because it is by far the most populous state. That ranking belies the fact that California has one of the nation’s lowest overall gun deaths per capita.
Experts point to the state’s restrictive gun laws, including new ones going into effect in January, and limited gun ownership for the relatively low rate of overall gun deaths of less than 8 per 100,000 people.
Still, gun advocates say the state’s tough regulations are leaving people vulnerable when they could be practicing self-defense in mass shootings or otherwise.
Attribute California’s all-too-common mass shooting incidents to the reality that 40 million people—more than 1 in 9 Americans—are Californians, said Garen Wintemute, emergency medicine physician and director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis. For instance, California has had 137 deaths from mass shootings since 1982 and Florida has had 118 deaths but California’s population is about twice as large as Florida’s.
“These things are tragedies and they are more frequent than they were, but they are only the new normal if we allow that to happen We need to say we won’t accept this,” said Wintemute, who wrote a recent article outlining how increased regulation nationwide could reduce mass shootings. “California’s low rates of firearm violence is one of the best pieces of evidence that this isn’t normal.”
Of course, none of this matters to those who have lost loved ones this week or in previous shootings. Late Wednesday, well-armed former Marine Ian David Long entered a country western bar in the suburb of Thousand Oaks, 40 miles outside of Los Angeles, and killed 13 people including a sheriff’s sergeant. Three years ago in San Bernardino, a terrorist shot up a county staff meeting and killed 14.
But the most recent data from 2016, reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control, does indicate that Californians are safer from guns than those in many other states. California ranked 43rd among states for its rate of gun deaths adjusted for age-related population. That rate, 7.9, accounted for a total of 3,184 deaths, about half of them suicides.
States with the highest rate of gun deaths per capita—Alaska, Alabama and Louisiana—have the highest rates of gun death per capita at well over 20 per 100,000.
“Our laws make a difference,” said Wintemute. “The fact that we have not allowed assault weapons outside of certain circumstances, we restrict high capacity magazines, we regulate firearm sales, we require background checks although they don’t always occur even though they are required, gun violence restraining orders are in place, and there are broader denials (of gun purchases and concealed-carry permits) than in most of the country.”
California’s governor-elect, Democrat Gavin Newsom, said Thursday that the Legislature “has gotten a lot done on gun safety, and they’ve got a governor who wants to raise the bar” and that he would be willing to sign some measures Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed.
Last year, for example, Brown vetoed a bill that would have allowed more categories of people—employers, co-workers and teachers—to petition a court for a gun restraining order requiring someone they believe to be a danger to surrender firearms for up to a year or renew an existing order.
Brown did sign into law a new law to ban the sale of rifles and shotguns to those under 21, and another to prohibit gun ownership by anyone committed to a mental health facility twice or more in a year who have been determined to be a danger to others or themselves.
Gun advocates contend this latest shooting was a tragedy made worse by the California’s gun regulations.
Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition, said if someone at the Borderline Bar and Grill had been armed, there would have been the chance to fight back and stop the shooter.
“When someone is actively trying to hurt dozens of people, you don’t have hours, you have seconds,” he said. “If we are serious about security, we need to be serious about self-defense.”
Combs also put a focus on the need for better mental health services. “We need to stop dealing in this fantasy that one more law, one more piece of paper or one more restraining order will protect people. What California and other places have done is create a dynamic where it’s virtually impossible to defend yourself if something bad happens.”
There is a question about whether existing laws, especially a 2014 restraining order law, could have helped keep the shooting from happening.
“I was wondering if this was a tragedy that could have been prevented through a gun violence restraining order,” Wintemute said. “Having the gun violence restraining orders law on the books is good, but the problem is that the law is not well enough known.”
According to media reports, the shooter had been evaluated earlier this year by a mental health team called by police. They did not determine he was a danger so police did not take him into custody. Reports suggest too many officers haven’t been trained about a relatively recent California law that allows police to ask a judge for a special restraining order that would require someone to surrender their firearms.