California still awash in guns despite pioneering gun regulations

December 21, 2012

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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 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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