Why California’s strict gun control laws didn’t stop the Monterey Park shooter

Monterey Park mayor Henry Lo kneels at a makeshift memorial outside the scene of a deadly mass shooting at a dance studio on January 23, 2023, in Monterey Park, California. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

California has banned assault weapons and high-capacity magazines like those used in Saturday’s attack for decades.

The shooting in Monterey Park, California has led to new calls to tighten Califonia’s gun laws. The gun used in the Saturday attack was likely illegal to possess in California, however, and it’s not clear whether the gunman obtained it by legal means.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna said in a press conference on Sunday that the shooter opened fire at a dance studio, leaving 11 dead and another nine injured, using a magazine-fed semiautomatic assault pistol with an extended high-capacity magazine attached. Police recovered the weapon after the operator of a second dance studio in Alhambra, a city roughly two miles north of Monterey Park, disarmed the gunman when he walked in the door, apparently with the intention of shooting more people.

The attack has rocked the area’s predominantly Chinese American community amid Lunar New Year celebrations and increasing violence against Asian Americans in the US over the last few years.

It’s not clear how the shooter obtained the gun, which was a Cobray M11 9mm semi-automatic weapon compatible with 30-round magazines, CNN reported. It’s also not clear whether the shooter legally obtained a second weapon recovered from inside his van — a handgun that he used to fatally shoot himself. The second weapon can be bought in California; the first has been banned in the state for more than three decades.

That the semi-automatic weapon is currently illegal in the state makes California unusual; such weapons can be legally purchased in the majority of the US. And that’s led California politicians to call not just for stronger laws in the state, but across the US.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat who has signed some of the strictest gun control measures in the nation during his tenure, said that the shooting should encourage the rest of the nation to follow California’s lead.

“No other country in the world is terrorized by this constant stream of gun violence. We need real gun reform at a national level,” he tweeted Sunday.

California’s strict gun control laws probably prohibit the pistol used in the shooting

California ranks first in the nation for the strength of its gun laws, according to Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization that advocates for gun control. Its laws are so extensive that there are questions about how much tighter state lawmakers could make them without running afoul of extensive legal challenges, like those facing Illinois’s new gun control measures.

In part due to its current laws, California’s gun violence rate is relatively low: data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that just 8.5 per 100,000 people in the state died at the end of a gun in 2020, compared to an average of 13.7 nationally.

California is one of only eight states, along with Washington, DC, to ban assault weapons like the one used in the shooting, which are designed to kill efficiently, without a shooter having to reload frequently. Most Americans support banning assault-style weapons, including 83 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Republicans, according to an April 2021 survey by Pew Research.

National efforts to ban assault weapons have repeatedly failed in recent years. Congress enacted the last national ban in 1994; it expired after 10 years when lawmakers failed to renew the ban in 2004. That law also included a prohibition on high-capacity magazines, which most Americans would support renewing, according to the Pew survey. But as with banning assault weapons, there’s a big partisan split: 83 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans are in favor.

California’s ban predates the most recent federal action. It went into effect in 1989 after five children were killed in a shooting at an elementary school in Stockton, and specifically prohibited the sale, manufacture, acquisition, or purchase of the model of gun used in Saturday’s shooting. There is a chance, however, that the gunman, who was 72 years old, may have obtained the gun used in the shooting before the ban went into effect, allowing him to legally maintain possession under a grandfather clause in the law.

The shooter also could have obtained the gun legally out of state, or illegally from a gun trafficker. Neighboring states like Nevada and Oregon have clamped down on gun trafficking by requiring background checks in recent years. But Arizona doesn’t require background checks to purchase any type of weapon, which made it the largest out-of-state source of guns traced to California in 2021, according to data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

California is also one of only 14 states that has banned high-capacity magazines, which can carry anything from 10 to 100 rounds and account for an estimated 22 to 36 percent of guns involved in crimes nationwide, according to Everytown. The California ban — which specifically restricted the sale, manufacture, and import of high-capacity magazines — went into effect in 2000. But like the assault weapons ban, it has a clause that would have allowed the shooter to possess a high-capacity magazine if he bought it before then.

In 2016, California voters approved a ballot measure to remove that exception and make it illegal to possess high-capacity magazines in the state, but it has yet to go into effect because it’s been tied up in federal litigation.

People can legally purchase a handgun in California like the one the shooter used to kill himself. But there are restrictions: you generally have to be over the age of 21 to purchase a firearm and can only do so from a licensed dealer following a 10-day waiting period and after presenting ID and proof of state residency, as well as completing a safety certification and demonstration. A concealed carry license issued by California authorities is also required to carry a handgun in public.

Los Angeles and federal authorities, including the FBI and ATF, are looking into how the shooter obtained his guns and whether anything could have been done to prevent those weapons from falling into his hands. But that investigation is still ongoing, and police have yet to say with certainty that the shooter’s guns were illegal.

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