California Gun Control Laws: Mass Shootings Have Sparked New Legislation for Three Decades

How a series of mass shootings has made California the toughest gun control state in the nation.

PUBLISHED OCT 26, 2023 12:00 A.M.
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A ban on assault weapons is just one of 107 California gun control laws.

A ban on assault weapons is just one of 107 California gun control laws.   Michael McConville / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 International License

California has more gun laws on the books than any other U.S. state, and has led the country in gun control laws at least since 1991, when researchers first took a count. In the latest count by the State Firearms Laws database at the Boston University School of Public Health, California has 107 gun laws controlling or restricting firearms ownership or use. The same database shows that the state, in 2018, suffered 3.22 gun-related homicides, and 3.9 gun-related suicides, for every 100,000 people.

The state with the second-most gun restrictions—Massachusetts, with 103 gun laws in effect—experienced fewer than half as many homicides and suicides per 100,000 residents: 1.51 and 1.86 respectively.

Of course, less is not always more when it comes to gun laws. Florida, with just 30 gun control laws, experienced 4.95 gun homicides and 7.58 suicides per 100,000, and Texas, with just 18 laws, had similar numbers: 4.01 homicides and 7.82 suicides.

California placed a ban on assault weapons in 1989, when Gov. George Deukmejian signed the Roberti–Roos Assault Weapons Control Act. That was five years before the federal government enacted a nationwide assault weapons ban. The federal law caused a drop in crimes committed with assault weapons of at least 17 percent, according to a National Institute of Justice report. But the law expired in 2004, 10 years after it took effect, and Congress did nothing to renew it.

Data compiled by Quinnipiac University economist Marc Gius for a 2014 research study showed that even state-level assault weapon bans caused a “statistically significant” drop in fatalities from mass shootings. But while California’s assault weapons ban remains in effect, it is one of only seven state bans, plus one in the District of Columbia.

Assault Weapons Still Used to Kill, Despite Ban

The California ban has not stopped assault weapons from being used in several horrific mass shootings. On July 28, 2019, a 19-year-old shooter killed four and wounded 12 at the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival. He used a Romanian-built semiautomatic WASR-10 rifle, a weapon similar to the Russian Kalishnokov—or AK-47—assault rifle. Both are prohibited under the California law. The Gilroy shooter reportedly bought the gun legally in Nevada.

On Dec. 2, 2015, a Riverside couple, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, opened fire at a holiday party hosted by Farook’s employer in San Bernardino, killing 14 people in what authorities called a terrorist attack. The couple used three assault rifles, all variations on the AR-15—a “civilian” version of the military M-16 rifle—and all obtained legally by a friend of the couple through loopholes in the state’s assault weapons ban.

Driven by what prosecutors called a “hatred of Jewish people,” another 19-year-old attacked a synagogue in Escondido during a Passover service. Firing a Smith and Wesson M&P 15 assault rifle—the same type of weapon used in the San Bernardino attack—the shooter killed one person and wounded three others, including the congregation’s rabbi.

How do gun atrocities like those keep happening in California, not to mention the hundreds of gun deaths that are not part of mass shootings? In 2019, according to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, 2,945 Californians died as a result of a gunshot. More than half of those, 1,586, shot themselves in deliberate suicides. The other 1,246 were killed by others wielding guns, with 171 teenagers and children among the dead.

In fact, it has often been in response to high-profile incidents of gun violence that California has added new gun control laws.

Stockton Shootings Spark Assault Weapons Law

The Roberti–Roos Act had its origins in yet another sickening mass shooting incident without which it seems unlikely that California would have passed the ban. 

On Jan. 17, 1989, a deeply troubled 24-year-old mentally disabled drifter named Patrick Purdy—who had a long history of small-time crime, alcoholism, homelessness and, perhaps most disturbingly, white supremacist beliefs—entered the playground at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton armed with a Chinese-made semi-automatic rifle known as a Norinco Type 56 AKM, another variant on the AK-47.

Purdy reportedly fired 100 rounds in about one minute, shooting 34 children and one teacher. Five of the children, aged six through nine, all of them Cambodian or Vietnamese immigrants, died. Purdy then concluded the massacre by killing himself.

Purdy had purchased the assault rifle legally, despite his criminal record, in Oregon the previous August. At the time, Oregon required no waiting period and only a minimal background check. Because none of Purdy’s convictions were felonies, he was in the clear to buy the weapon.

By the end of May, the state legislature approved the assault weapons ban, sponsored by two Los Angeles-area legislators. David Roberti was president pro tempore of the senate, and Mike Roos an Assembly member. Both had proposed gun control legislation previously. In Roos’s case, he authored a bill requiring a waiting period before purchase of a rifle.

“I got my ass handed to me,” Rood told the Los Angeles Times in 2021 regarding his bill. “I couldn’t even get it off the Assembly floor.”

Schoolyard Massacre Changed Outlook for Gun Control

Everything changed when the Stockton schoolyard shootings happened. Years later, in an interview with KCET radio, Roberti recounted sitting with Deukmejian, a longtime foe of gun control measures, in the Republican governor’s office, when news of the Stockton schoolyard massacre came through.

“And you could tell it visually shook [the governor] up. It probably didn’t hurt that I was in his office at the time,” Roberti told the radio station. “So we pushed the bill and we won by one vote. Without that terrible incident, we wouldn't have won.”

Deukmejian's narrow victory over Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley in the 1982 gubernatorial election had come “in large part” from the votes of gun owners in the Central Valley and Inland Empire, according to a Los Angeles Times account. But the schoolyard child-killings turned the Republican governor into a born-again gun control advocate. In addition to enthusiastically signing the assault weapons ban, Deukmejian supported other gun control measures as well, including an expansion of the state’s 15-day waiting period for handgun purchases to include all firearms.

The National Rifle Association, which of course fervently opposed the assault weapons ban, didn’t take the defeat lying down. In 1994, the NRA targeted Roberti for a recall even though the state senator was up against his term limit and on his way out anyway.

Roberti was also running for state treasurer at the time and was forced to spend so much money to defeat the recall effort—Roberti cruised to a victory with 59 percent of the vote—that he was left with far too little in his war chest to succeed in that campaign. He lost in the primary, effectively ending his political career.

More New Laws Follow Another Mass Shooting

As horrific as the Stockton schoolyard massacre was, it took yet another deadly mass shooting to get federal legislators behind an assault weapons ban.

“It was the 1993 mass shooting at 101 California Street in San Francisco that was the tipping point for me,” California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein said in 2018. “That’s what really motivated me to push for a ban on assault weapons.”

Feinstein was referring to an attack by Gian Luigi Ferri, a 55-year-old struggling businessman who on July 1, 1993, entered a high-rise office building armed with three semi-automatic pistols, took the elevator to the 34th floor offices of the Pettit & Martin law firm, and opened fire. By the time he turned one of the guns on himself, Ferri had killed eight people and wounded six more on three different floors. His motives for the killings, and reasons for targeting Pettit & Martin, remain mysterious.

After the 1993 mass shooting, California enacted more than 60 new gun control laws over the subsequent 15 years, including the 2002 repeal of a 1983 law that immunized gun makers against lawsuits. Families of the 101 California Street victims had attempted to sue Navegar, Inc. Under the brand name Intratec, the Miami, Florida-based company made the Tec-9 semi-automatic handgun, described by the gunmaker as “a radically new type of semi-automatic pistol … designed to deliver a high volume of firepower.”

Ferri used two Tec-9 pistols in the shooting spree. He had purchased both weapons legally in Las Vegas, Nevada—one from a gun store, the other at a gun show.

In 2001, the California Supreme Court threw out the families’ lawsuit, ruling that under the 1983 law, the California legislature had declared it “a matter of public policy that a gun manufacturer may not be held liable” for harm inflicted by the functions of its products. California legislators quickly passed a law repealing that “matter of public policy.”

The repeal lasted less than three years. In 2005, the United States Congress passed the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. President George W. Bush signed the law, which NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre called “the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years.” The immunity law, which remains in effect, canceled out California’s repeal of its own immunity law.

Assault Weapons Ban in Legal Limbo

More than three decades after it passed in the wake of the Stockton schoolyard massacre, California’s ban on assault weapons found itself on thin legal ice. In June 2021, a federal judge in the U.S. Southern California District Court—2004 Bush appointee Roger Benitez—ruled the 1989 gun law unconstitutional.

The signature California gun law has been strengthened over the years to close a large number of loopholes that allow purchase of semiautomatic rifles and pistols on the grounds that, under certain various conditions, they do not qualify as “assault weapons.” For example, following the 2015 San Bernardino attack, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law banning the “bullet button.”

That’s a device that allows a shooter to reload a rifle much more quickly, effectively turning a standard rifle into an assault weapon. The San Bernardino shooters were able to inflict as much carnage as they caused by using bullet buttons.

But in his ruling in the case Miller v. Bonta, Benitez threw out the 31-year-old law, saying that the AR-15 rifle was “good for both home and battle,” and comparing it to a Swiss Army knife. Bizarrely, Benitez also stated in his ruling that defensive use of assault weapons “seems to be more common” than mass shooting incidents involving the weapons.

Data compiled from the Gun Violence Archive by researcher Devin Hughes showed that from 2016 to May of 2021, there were 126 mass shootings (in which four or more people were shot) involving assault weapons, compared to just 47 incidents of people using the weapons against attackers. The mass shootings in that period claimed 402 lives and injured 1,157.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta quickly appealed Benitez’s decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel placed a stay on the lower court judge’s order, meaning that the assault weapons ban remained in effect. When Benitez got the case back, he issued a new ruling on Oct. 19, 2023—again deciding to overturn the 1989 assault weapons ban. The case is expected to eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is dominated by a 6-3 majority of conservative justices.

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