SANTA ANA, Calif. — California has some of the toughest gun laws in the country, with rules on everything from the types of weapons and ammunition that can be legally owned, to who can and can’t own a weapon, to broad funding for community programs aimed at curbing gun violence.
And researchers believe those tight rules do help reduce the odds of dying from a gunshot in California. That contention is backed up by a growing body of research on the effectiveness of gun laws and by federal data about gun-related deaths across the country.
Still, laws can’t prevent pure horror.
On Jan. 21, the state’s gun rules did nothing to stop a man from using what investigators said was a semi-automatic assault pistol to kill 11 people and injure at least nine others. The weapon, as described, is illegal in California. So is transporting it into or within the state, selling it and carrying it. But none of that slowed the shooter when he fired 42 rounds at people celebrating Lunar New Year at a Monterey Park dance studio.
New research suggests mass shootings might be the grim outlier when it comes to the effectiveness of gun laws.
“I don’t know if there is a law that can be enacted related to mass shootings that would prevent them. Though I’d also say that doesn’t mean such laws aren’t useful, or that having scientific evidence that a law would work should be why it should or shouldn’t be (enacted),” said Andrew Morral, a behavioral scientist at RAND Corp. and co-author of The Science of Gun Policy project, an ongoing study launched in 2018 that issued its third update earlier this month.
The research, part of Santa Monica-based RAND’s Gun Policy in America project, has the nonpartisan goal of establishing basic facts about gun violence, legitimate gun use and gun laws. The idea is that those facts, in turn, can be used by people on all sides of the gun debate to craft rules that stem gun-related deaths. In 2021, the last year for which full data is available, nearly 49,000 Americans died from gun violence or gun-related suicide.
In their research, Morral and other RAND scientists track thousands of studies looking at how different types of gun laws affect everything from gun violence, such as homicides and suicides, to the price of guns and the legal use of guns, such as self-defense, hunting and sport shooting. Though such research is relatively new — in part because from 1992 to 2018 federal funding was not allowed to be used to collect gun violence data — RAND’s study of the studies has found some patterns.
For example, studies show that gun-related violent crime is more common in communities with “stand your ground” laws and in communities that make it easy to carry concealed weapons. Also, stricter rules about storing and locking up guns, known as “child access prevention laws,” may reduce violent crime, suicide and accidents — but possibly at the cost of making it harder to use guns for self-defense.
But RAND didn’t find a lot of strong research into how laws prevent mass shootings. Though Morral said there is “limited” evidence that banning the sale of assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines curtails mass shootings, he was quick to point out that “limited” is “our weakest evidence rating short of ‘inconclusive.’”
Still, Morral said a lack of scientific support for a particular gun law shouldn’t be a reason for legislators to abandon any effort to make it harder for mass killings. He noted that strong scientific support isn’t the threshold used in non-firearm legislation, and suggested gun research “shouldn’t be a substitute for common sense.”
Others believe gun legislation should be aimed at manufacturers, not gun consumers, and that such legislation could at least limit a broad range of gun violence, including mass shootings.
“It’s because of the kinds of guns we have available in this country,” said Christian Heyne, vice president of policy and programs for the Brady Campaign, a group that works to pass gun laws aimed at reducing gun violence.
“We have a lot of questions about how this gunman was able to have access to the kind of weapons he had, considering it is illegal in California. We don’t have a common denominator from preventing weapons of this lethality, and we believe some of those rules need to be answered in federal law,” Heyne added.
“But we do know gun laws work. California is an interesting place. You’re 40% less likely to die by a gun in California than you are anywhere in the country. That’s not an accident. That’s a result of legislation.”
Studies show California has the seventh-lowest gun violence rate in the country, with 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people, according to federal data. States with the highest gun mortality rates, including Mississippi (28.6 deaths per 100,000 people), Louisiana (26.3 deaths) and Wyoming (25.9 deaths), all grade out as having the nation’s most lax gun laws, according to the Giffords Law Center, an organization that favors gun legislation.
On Monday, the deaths in Monterey Park sparked yet another push to extend California-style gun laws to the rest of the country. California Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced legislation that would ban “military-style assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines or ammunition feeding devices. The legislation, which also is backed by Democratic Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy, both of Connecticut, would include the gun used by the shooter, Feinstein’s office said in a news release.
The announcement about the proposed legislation came just before news broke about the shooting deaths of seven people Monday in the Bay Area community of Half Moon Bay.
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