Did California's Tough Gun Laws Prevent a Greater Tragedy?

It's premature to say. But a gun control group views the state as a national model

After YouTube shooting suspect Nasim Aghdam wounded three people at the company’s campus in California, questions remain about where and when she bought the 9 millimeter Smith & Wesson semi-automatic handgun that she allegedly used, authorities said Tuesday.

But what is known is that California has some of the county’s toughest gun-control laws and that it has tightened them after previous shootings. And along with its strict gun laws, it has among the lowest number of gun deaths per capita, 43rd among the 50 states.

The Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which considers California a national model, ranks the state number one in the country for the strength of laws governing background checks, military-style weapons, large capacity magazines, permits for carrying concealed weapons and access to weapons by domestic abusers and children.

California was the first to enact extreme risk protection orders that give relatives or law enforcement the ability to petition a court to temporarily remove guns from people deemed dangerous. It prohibits people who have been convicted of violent misdemeanors and hate crimes from owning guns and next year, will require background checks for ammunition.

Aghdam, a 38-year-old San Diego resident, arrived at the YouTube campus in San Bruno Tuesday afternoon and shot three people before apparently killing herself, authorities said. She had a grudge against the company, claiming it discriminated against her videos, and she felt cheated out of revenue from video views, her family said. Authorities say they have no indication she was singling out anyone as she fired.

Not enough is yet known about Aghdam to say definitively whether California’s tough laws prevented more casualties. The San Bruno police chief, Ed Barberini, did say on Wednesday that Aghdam possessed her handgun legally though he did not know where or when she bought it.

“We don’t necessarily have enough facts to know which laws in particular may have come into play and how this tragedy may have unfolded differently in another state,” said Ari Freilich, a staff attorney at the Giffords Law Center and director of California Legislative Affairs.

Gun Control Grades

The Giffords Law Center in San Francisco ranks the 50 states each year on the strength of their gun laws governing background checks, military style weapons, permits to carry concealed weapons and other measures. Here's how the states stack up.

Source: Giffords Law Center

But she would not have been able legally to buy an assault weapon or large capacity magazines, he noted. For example, AR-15 series weapons, which have been used in mass shootings across the country, are not legal unless they were owned by Aug. 16, 2000, and registered by Jan. 23, 2001, according to the website of the California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

The state’s gun laws have limitations though. California is bordered by states with much laxer gun laws, Nevada and Arizona in particular. Rates of gun violence rise in California after gun shows in Nevada, Freilich said.

And California has seen mass shooting during which assault weapons were used. Fourteen people were killed at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California, in a 2015 terrorist attack when Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, opened fire on Farook’s office holiday party. The couple were killed afterward in a shootout with police.

They were armed with two 9 millimeter handguns that Farook had bought legally and two .223-caliber rifles that a neighbor had bought, also legally, authorities said. Despite California’s prohibition on assault rifles, the rifles were variants on the AR-15, authorities said.

Opponents to gun control measures argue the laws are ineffective because they are easily bypassed with the elimination of prohibited features on the guns. But after the killings in San Bernardino, California tightened its laws again, with new restrictions on semiautomatic rifles and a ban on all large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Gun owners and the National Rifle Association have challenged California’s laws in the courts and one lawsuit has delayed the implementation of the magazine ban. Last year the NRA's state affiliate sued over the prohibition on the sale of semiautomatic rifles equipped with bullet-buttons that allow ammunition magazines to be replaced quickly. It argues that that the regulation criminalizes the possession of weapons used for self-defense or sports.

But in February, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear two cases involving California's gun laws — one calling for a 10-day waiting period and the other involving fees on gun transactions.

And Freilich noted that 25 years ago, California had the third highest rate of gun murders in the country. Now it is 25th, he said.

“California still has been able to make major progress,” he said.

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