Why California Has Lots of Firearms but Relatively Low Gun Violence

Westwood street art attributed to Banksy
Westwood street art attributed to Banksy

California is one of the nation's top states for gun ownership, according to a recently released federal report. In fact, the statistical update by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives concluded that only Texas had more registered weapons.

Those weapons include firearms and accessories required to be logged with the feds under the National Firearms Act (NFA), such as shotguns, rifles with barrels shorter than 18 inches, machine guns, mufflers, silencers and "destructive devices." California has 344,622 registered items that fit that description as of April, according to the ATF. Gun-hoarding Texas has 588,696.

Yet the gun violence rate in California remains low relative to the rest of the nation. A study released in August found that Golden State gun violence dropped 56 percent between 1993, two years after the passage of universal background checks, and 2010.

It's a point that gun-control advocates want the world to hear: California has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation yet remains a leader in firearms sales volume. "We're doing something right," says Amanda Wilcox, legislative chair of the California Chapters of the Brady Campaign.

"For those who care about the Second Amendment, we're not stopping gun sales," she says. "California has found the right balance in terms of preventing sales to dangerous people at risk of violence. Our gun death rate is dropping yet our gun sales are high."

California gun laws have come in waves, often following tragedy. The 1989 Cleveland Elementary School shooting in Stockton inspired universal background checks. The Isla Vista rampage in 2014 inspired a law that allows family members to ask a judge for a temporary restraining order that prohibits gun possession on the part of someone deemed to be unstable.

There are also laws that prohibit assault-type rifles, large-capacity magazines, quick-change magazines, .50 caliber sniper rifles, and even bump stocks of the kind believed to have been used by the Las Vegas shooter to simulate automatic gunfire. There are no gun-show loopholes, and even private and out-of-state sales are supposed to be registered with the state.

Some of those laws could have limited the Las Vegas shooter's arsenal. "Assault weapons laws attempt to decrease lethality — they limit the spray of fire," Wilcox says.

California's federally registered weapons include an inordinate amount of "destructive devices," defined by the ATF as grenades, grenade launchers, flash-bang devices and artillery. Ginger Colbrun of the ATF's Los Angeles office says that's likely because Hollywood sometimes uses these devices for filming.

"California is home to several motion picture prop houses with large inventories of NFA weapons," according to an ATF statement. "These prop houses rent the NFA weapons out to major motion picture studios. California is [also] home to a large contingent of law enforcement who are also required to report their NFA weapons."

The ATF concludes that the Obama years were good for gun makers. It recorded an estimated 43 percent increase in firearms made in the United States in the last five years. "In 2015, the number of firearms manufactured grew to more than 9.3 million, up from the approximate 6.5 million firearms manufactured in 2011," according to the bureau.

The numbers for California aren't complete — they cover only the federal government's must-register weapons. The state government does its own tracking. "Nobody can say with any truth how many guns there are in America," Colbrun says.

Indeed, the bureau's analysis appears to show that the biggest state in the union's strict gun laws aren't about to put weapons manufacturers out of business anytime soon.


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