California still awash in guns despite pioneering gun regulations

Despite being ranked ahead of every other state on gun controls, California still faces enormous challenges in how to reduce gun violence as a result of the millions of weapons already in circulation in the state and the complexity of laws intended to regulate them.

Bushmaster's AR 15 weapons on display at the California Department of Jusice.

Bushmaster’s AR-15 weapons on display at the California Department of Justice.

These are the stark figures: Since 1991, close to 9 million guns were sold legally in California alone. Only about 1 percent of people seeking to buy them were unable to do so because of background checks. Over 1,300 types of weapons have been approved for sale by California’s Department of Justice – although the department points out that “private party transfers, curio/relic handguns, certain single-action revolvers, and pawn/consignment returns are exempt” from state approval.

And these figures don’t include unregistered weapons – those bought and sold illegally – and those brought legally to California from other states.

Neither armed guards on every school campus nor a less violent entertainment culture will do anything to reduce the massive flow of legal weapons into communities across the state. The number of weapons sold legally in California last year – over 601,000 – is the highest number in almost 20 years.

Just last Saturday, within 24 hours of the Newtown massacre, 17-year-old Montreal Blakely, a promising high school football player and standout student, was killed in San Francisco’s Bayview district by unknown assailants. The following day, 16-year-old  Richard Aldana was shot riding his bicycle in the Harbor Gateway neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Multiply those numbers over the course of a year and the portrait of childhood deaths is even grimmer: 138 children under the age of 18 were murdered in California in 2010, the last year for which figures have been compiled by the Centers for Disease Control. Fourteen of those victims were children under the age of 12.

These murders keep occurring despite California’s pioneering Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act, named after the lawmakers who sponsored it after the 1989 killings of five children on the playground of Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton. 

Former Assemblyman Mike Roos, who co-sponsored the bill, said he “takes some sort of real satisfaction that at least in California, these kinds of weapons are no longer seemingly the weapons of choice, that in a moment of mental breakdown or frustration or anger someone can’t go out and use them in a mass murder.” 

Not surprisingly, the assault weapons ban triggered court challenges, and along with them a set of complex and often confusing regulations governing their sale or possession in California. For example, the state attorney general’s office website states clearly that  “AK and AR-15 series weapons are unlawful for sale after August 16, 2000, even if their assault weapon characteristics are removed.”

Yet gun shops now openly sell weapons with the AR-15 name tag. On its website, for example, a Placerville gun shop with the chillingly coincidental name Newtown Firearms describes itself as “Calfornia’s premiere AR-15 and tactical semi auto rifle dealer in Sacramento.” “If you are trying to buy an AR-15 in California, you have come to the right place,” it declares.

According to the Department of Justice, AR-15 rifles that have been modified with a fixed, non-detachable magazine that holds no more than 10 rounds do not fit the definition of an assault weapon. They are thus likely to be legal in California.

State officials say that without examining the weapons being sold, it is impossible to know if they are legal under California laws – underscoring the complexity of regulating them. “It is not black and white,” said Michelle Gregory, a spokesperson for the California Department of Justice. “It all comes down to the characteristics of the weapon, whether it fits the definition of an assault weapon or not. We wouldn’t be able to tell without taking a closer look at it.”

In the meantime, a vigil was held on Friday in honor of Montreal Blakely in his hometown of Concord, exactly a week after the Newtown massacre. To raise money for his funeral, his football teammates sold Christmas ornaments printed with the number 9. That was the number on his football jersey.

Louis Freedberg is executive director of EdSource. 


As Reported to the California Department of Justice

Year All Guns Total Denials
1991 489,433 5,859
1992 559,608 5,763
1993 642,197 6,509
1994 599,672 6,426
1995 411,668 4,206
1996 353,872 3,642
1997 355,136 3,454
1998 342,540 3,317
1999 513,418 4,779
2000 386,210 3,475
2001 353,722 3,607
2002 352,425 3,833
2003 290,376 3,028
2004 315,065 3,325
2005 344,847 3,470
2006 375,573 3,734
2007 370,628 4,299
2008 425,244 4,938
2009 483,872 5,137
2010 498,945 5,026
2011 601,246 5,707
Total 1991 – 2011 9,065,697 93,534

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8 Responses to “California still awash in guns despite pioneering gun regulations”

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  1. Andrew on Mar 7, 2015 at 5:19 am03/7/2015 5:19 am

    • 000

    The incredulity on both sides of the gun debate arises from a cultural divide.

    My first encounter with the divide came as I got to know my first year college roommate. My roots were in a rural community in the Rockies were everyone owned, carried and was comfortable with guns and where crime was rare. He came from Newark, New Jersey. I was incredulous as he described how he and others in his city expected to be mugged and robbed periodically, and were. Apparently there was a protocol where if the victim was suitably docile and compliant, and the criminal would often just rob and not hurt the victim. I tried to imagine someone thinking that they could mug someone in my mountain hometown, that the men of the town would ever allow it to happen, let alone the rare law enforcement officer. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in such vulnerability as my roommate described. I wondered why men would put up with it.

    A month prior to meeting my first roommate, a buddy and I drove to a mountain pass to begin a week long backpacking trip and we stopped at a remote diner off the highway for breakfast. After finishing our early breakfast, we walked toward the parking lot and were blocked and accosted by a large and obviously drunk Native American man. He was inexplicably angry and belligerent and was waiving around a heavy oak table leg which had apparently been broken off a table, as it had a large sharp screw and splintered wood protruding from the business end. He expressed his intention to hit us with his club. The nearest law enforcement was 45 miles away. My buddy and I looked at each other and wordlessly my buddy pulled back the canvas coat he wore against the mountain chill, revealing his holstered (and loaded) .357 magnum sixgun. Our assailant stared at the holstered gun, sobered quickly, and left fast.

    There are other Californias and I feel blessed to to live in one of the others, the one that is high in elevation and has less population density than Montana, a region where there is no street in the county where a woman couldn’t walk safely at night. The income levels here are low, gun ownership is nearly universal, and issuance of concealed carry permits is very high, and crime is very low. I can look out my window and see the places of neighbors scattered here and there in the distance, and so far as I know every one of them is a gun owner. And I trust and would depend on any one of them whose homes I can see, solid competent rural people. Trying to rob or assault or mug any of them or anyone around them would be a very foolhardy undertaking. Across the cultural divide, we find ourselves incredulous on both sides, the author and I.


    • Manuel on Mar 7, 2015 at 9:09 am03/7/2015 9:09 am

      • 000

      Andrew, it isn’t so simple. I know of certain mountain villages that have been emptying because of gun violence.

      It is a social compact. If someone in your community decided to go and terrorize his neighbors, and then, after retaliation, his family defended him and retaliated themselves, how soon would you end up with an empty region?

      You live at an equilibrium that is next to impossible in a large city. We simply cannot apply the same “rules” to a very large group of people in a relatively small land area. Sure, it will feel great to shoot it out with a would be robber, but four or five cops can’t handle a belligerent man with long time mental issues and end up shooting him at point-blank range, what hope is there for an untrained citizen to defend himself at the mercy of a large drunken Native American man who then slowly shows you his gun after dropping that table leg? Where would you be then?

      Let’s face it, having a gun in the boonies where everyone is armed is not the same as having a gun in the city where it is a target-rich environment. That’s why the carrying of guns was banned in the north side of Dodge City in 1876. Besides, who the hell needs an assault gun in the city? For the End of Times? For the soon-to-come Russians? Or to kill sorority girls because they’d never date you?

      • Andrew on Mar 8, 2015 at 7:52 am03/8/2015 7:52 am

        • 000

        Didn’t Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyr to the Nazis, say something to the effect that he came to realize that you wouldn’t find a moral code written on a blade of grass. I understand and appreciate your points, Manuel. The tumultuous region of Mexico in Guerrero where 43 student teachers were mass murdered and tortured by police and gangsters last year is both rural and mountainous. Sparseness of population and mountains alone don’t instill morality or responsibility in the inhabitants, I’ll acknowledge.

        During their 2013 manhunt for murderous ex-cop Dorner in the LA area, it was trained police officers who fired 109 rounds into a truck driven by two innocent and unarmed women delivering newspapers. Obviously those officers had a rat-a-tat-tat mentality and were not especially good shots, since neither of the women they shot at 109 times were killed. Large capacity magazines are for people who are bad shots, which includes a lot of urban officers.

        My buddy and I who were threatened with a club by the drunk guy at the mountain cafe were not bad shots. One reason my pal carried his .357 revolver is that we used accurate revolvers with carefully handloaded ammunition to take game for food during wilderness backpacking trips. I’d previously seen my friend perform the ultimate handgun feat, hitting an moving aerial target. Had our assailant dropped his club and shown a gun, he would have committed suicide. Skill is a factor here, and it involves disciplined practice, and perps have neither.

        The folks whose houses I see scattered in the distance out the window I am now looking through not only have guns, they are on the whole confident and skilled in using them. One whose house I see about half a mile away skillfully stalked and killed an antelope at 70 yards with a bow and arrow, and guns are much easier to use. He didn’t shoot 109 arrows at the antelope, just one. We have vast spaces in every direction where it is safe and legal to practice shooting and it is a popular recreation here. People who terrorize others are not welcome in this region and neither are families that support them. The open spaces here don’t necessarily make people who they are, but give them an opportunity to be who they are.

        From what I have read of the Bay Area, and seen in some other CA urban areas, the safety of your neighborhood is largely dependent on how much you can pay for your home. If you can pay a million or two or three, you can be in a very safe and crime-free neighborhood. If you are on a starting teacher’s salary, you may have to live in a neighborhood where you are at risk of being prey. Since concealed handgun permits are unlikely to be issued in such an area, and there is probably little opportunity for regular shooting practice, your measures to avoid being prey are limited. Even more so for women. These factors don’t apply to us. But I understand the difficulties and dilemmas in a large CA urban area. If I lived there, I’d want to be armed, even more so. But I see the concerns and limitations also.

    • navigio on Mar 9, 2015 at 10:12 am03/9/2015 10:12 am

      • 000

      We have concealed carry too, just not by permit. 😉

      Your reference to a cultural divide is right on. Human aggression increases with density (though not necessarily linearly) and is exacerbated by poverty (one of the defining characteristics of large portions of our urban areas in recent decades). This makes it next to impossible to treat urban areas the same as rural ones.

      Ironically, in urban areas guns have become more dangerous partly because legal owners have less education in their use (obviously there are also other reasons). So now in many places the danger from accidents outweighs the danger many owners attempted to avoid by buying a firearm in the first place (actually that may have always been true but even if it were statistically provable, that fact would likely be irrelevant for many people). This obviously changes the rationale for and against ownership when seen from a societal (legal) perspective, especially when compared to rural areas (note also that hunting rationale is also irrelevant for urban areas).

      And of course all logic goes out the window once one has had a personal experience that solidifies one or the other perspective.

  2. Gary Ravani on Mar 6, 2015 at 12:45 pm03/6/2015 12:45 pm

    • 000

    The following is excerpted from the Washington Post:

    “The United States has notoriously liberal gun control laws, and it has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world — an average of 88 per 100 people, according to a 2007 Small Arms Survey.

    The world’s crime figures come from the UNODC annual crime survey, and while it does not include key nations, such as Russia, China and Afghanistan, it does include most other developed countries.
    Other parts of South America and South Africa also rank highly, while the United States is somewhere near the mid-range. Still, America sees far more gun violence than countries in Europe, and Canada, India and Australia, which is perhaps how it gets its bloody reputation among comparatively peaceful nations.

    When a person kills another in the United States, though, he or she generally uses a gun: 60 percent of U.S. homicides occur using a firearm, which is the 26th-highest rate in the world. (In other gun-permeated countries, such as Finland (45.3 guns per 100 people), only about 19 percent of homicides involve a firearm.

    Guns don’t always kill people, it seems, but they certainly play a role.”

    Interesting that Finland, a nations that come up a lot in discussions of educational achievement, also comes up here in discussions of how/why you can have a relatively high number of guns per capita and yet maintain low rates of gun violence. As has been mentioned before Finland’s government and education policy is organized around the principle of equity. They have very low levels of poverty including child poverty and a seamless social services system with generous benefits that insures people don’t live or grow up in grinding conditions of poverty. So, low homicide rates and high school achievement. Do we want those things? There’s a template to follow. We just need to do it. (Holding my breath.)

  3. Jerald H. Lorenz on Mar 6, 2015 at 8:05 am03/6/2015 8:05 am

    • 000

    Gun control like prohibition has been an expensive and failed experiment. If it were to be abandoned not much would change except the new feeling of living in a state of freedom. The criminal will always get their guns and law-abiding citizens will still be law-abiding citizens.
    The only losers that will feel the change will be the anti-gun politicians who get gun-control laws and their name in the paper and the anti-gun groups will be un-employed.
    The Bloombergs;Fienstiens;Schummers et al will be lost souls looking for a cause to exist.
    Lets not forget LELAND YEE! How come he is still on the street instead of being prosecuted?
    Joe citizen would have been in the Graybar motel long ago for that crime.


    • Gary Ravani on Mar 6, 2015 at 12:28 pm03/6/2015 12:28 pm

      • 000

      Nope. Gun control is like the old saying about Christianity: “it’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s just never been tried.”

  4. DDS on Dec 22, 2012 at 9:28 am12/22/2012 9:28 am

    • 000

    According to the chart, over a ten year period, 93,534 people, something like 1% of the total, were denied presumably for failing the NICS “instant check” or whatever California uses as the equivalent. Allowing for the inevitable “false positives”, people who were not “prohibited persons” but had a name similiar to someone who was, that’s still a lot of “prohibited persons” attempting to purchase a firearm. Under the 1968 Gun Control Act, it is a federal felony for a “prohibited person”, someone who is a convicted felon or substance abuser for instance, to attempt to buy a firearm.

    I wonder how many of these 93,534 or so people were arrested, convicted and are now serving their mandatory 5 year sentence in federal custody. Not many? I’m shocked!

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