Recent mass shootings undercut gains from California's strict gun laws

Adele Castro touches the photo of Mymy Nhan at a memorial crowded with bouquets and candles.
Adele Castro, 68, who said she knew all the victims, touches the photo of Mymy Nhan at a memorial outside Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., on Thursday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

At least seven mass shootings have occurred in California since the beginning of 2023, leaving 31 people dead and dozens more injured. The latest tragedies are a setback for one of the states with the strictest gun laws in the United States.

Just last month in Monterey Park, a neighborhood east of downtown L.A., a 72-year-old man opened fire, killing 11 people and injuring nine others on Jan. 22 at a Lunar New Year celebration. Investigators are still attempting to determine why Huu Can Tran went into the Star Ballroom Dance Studio with a modified semi-automatic 9 mm MAC-10, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Robert Luna, and started shooting.

Officers said he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his car, where they also found a Norinco 7.62 x 25mm handgun, Luna said. At Tran’s home, police found a 308-caliber rifle, an unknown number of bullets and evidence that he was making homemade firearm suppressors that muffle the sound of the weapons.

The gun he used in the mass shooting is generally illegal in California. The sheriff’s office is still investigating the origin of both weapons used in the killings.

Another man of Asian descent, Chunli Zhao, 66, is accused of killing four people two days later at a mushroom farm in in Northern California, as well as three others at a nearby site. The sheriff’s office said Zhao had legal possession of a semiautomatic weapon that was registered to him.

A girl in a hooded jacket, holding a candle, and an older woman, also with a candle, at a vigil in honor of the shooting victims.
A candlelight vigil is held in honor of the mass shooting victims at Mac Dutra Park in Half Moon Bay, Calif., last Friday. (Ray Chavez/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)

As in many previous instances, the two shootings sparked calls for tougher gun laws, both at the state and at the federal level. But some nevertheless question whether such laws could have prevented the recent tragedies and whether they can prevent more violence from happening.

Recent polling shows that most Americans now feel it is time for a change in gun policy. The majority of adults in the U.S. want to see stricter gun laws and believe gun violence is increasing nationwide, according to a poll released in August 2022. The study, conducted by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, found that “three-fourths of Americans view gun violence as a major problem, and 8 in 10 say gun violence is on the rise in the United States.”

The survey fielded results from 1,373 adults aged 18 and over, representing the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Last year, Congress passed the first federal gun legislation in decades, including billions of dollars to address mental illness and to encourage states to enact laws allowing authorities to confiscate weapons from individuals considered to pose a risk.

It’s unlikely, though, that any new gun laws will move forward, now that the Republicans have regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The majority of guns used in mass shootings were obtained legally, according to the nonprofit Violence Project.

The 2022 legislation

After the mass shooting at Robb Elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, which killed 19 children and two adults, Congress passed the first major gun safety legislation in nearly 30 years.

Reggie Daniels kneels in front of banks of floral bouquets at a memorial at Robb Elementary School.
Reggie Daniels pays his respects a memorial at Robb Elementary School on June 9, 2022, in Uvalde, Texas, created to honor the victims killed in the recent school shooting. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

The bill signed into law by President Biden in June 2022 aims to increase background checks for the youngest gun buyers, to keep firearms from more domestic violence offenders and to help states put in place red flag laws that make it easier for authorities to take weapons from people considered to be at risk of perpetrating gun violence.

And yet, while mass shootings tend to be committed by relatively young men, the suspects in the recent shootings in California were men in their 60s and 70s.

“The federal law was focused in part on 18- to 20-year-olds, among other provisions. But the changes were incremental, so it is no surprise that they would not correlate with a measurable visible drop in gun crime,” Dr. Bob Spitzer, a professor and author of six books on gun control, including “The Gun Dilemma,” told Yahoo News.

“For example,” he added, “the provision encouraging states to adopt or implement red flag laws is a very narrowly focused provision. Red flag laws, according to several studies, have measurable effects in reducing gun suicides, which is undeniably beneficial. But [their] benefits would not show up in national crime statistics.”

First lady Jill Biden, in red silk dress, Elaine Tso, in red jacket, and President Biden, facing a large audience in formal dress, bow their heads.
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and Elaine Tso, CEO of Asian Services in Action (ASIA) observe a moment of silence to honor the lives lost in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay at a reception to celebrate the Lunar New Year at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 26. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds via Getty Images)

Mark Kaplan, a professor of social welfare at the University of California Los Angeles, says the government spends only a small amount of money on firearm violence research.

“Quite often with prevention, we don't know what's been prevented. So it's hard to establish. It may have prevented some incidents that never got any media attention,” he told Yahoo News, going on to say that often, "We don't know what it prevented. That's the problem. Because we don't really have good research."

Do California’s strict gun laws work?

California has a gun homicide rate of 3.9 deaths per 100,000 people, meaning it has the 29th highest rate of gun homicide deaths in the U.S, according to data compiled by Everytown for Gun Safety and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The national rate is 5.1 per 100,000 people.

The data also shows that the state has managed to curb another common firearm issue: suicides. The gun suicide rate decreased by 11%, while gun homicides increased 31% from 2011 to 2020. Nationally, the figures were respectively a 12% increase for suicides and a 70% increase for gun homicides.

“Mass shootings receive a great deal of attention, for understandable reasons,” Spitzer said, “but it is important to remember that they represent about 1% of gun murders annually.”

California Gov. Gavin Newsom had already been considering more gun control measures before the latest shootings.

Gov. Gavin Newsom, holding a portable cup of coffee, hugs Thinh Luong in a parking lot, against a backdrop of palm trees.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California hugs Thinh Luong, 46, right, a school teacher, near the Star Dance Studio in Monterey Park, Calif., on Jan. 23. (Philip Cheung for the Washington Post via Getty Images)

“The Second Amendment is becoming a suicide pact,” Newsom told CBS News, in an interview about the Monterey Park shooting. “I have no ideological opposition with someone reasonably and responsibly owning firearms and getting background checks and being trained and making sure they’re locked — so their kid doesn’t accidentally shoot themselves or a loved one.”

The suspect in the Half Moon Bay attacks owned his weapon legally, according to police, while authorities reported that the deceased gunman in the Monterey shooting used a gun and a high-capacity magazine, both of which are illegal to buy in the state.

Last year, California Attorney General Rob Bonta launched a new office of gun violence prevention. He said firearm deaths are a true public health crisis and require immediate action.

“California has long been a national leader in effectively preventing gun violence — with one of the lowest rates of gun deaths in the country. Despite efforts at the state level, in 2020, firearms were the leading cause of death for children in the United States,” Bonta's office said in a press release.

Kaplan noted that the illegal trafficking of guns across states is one reason why passing gun legislation may not always be a guarantee of success. “What's the state next to California? Nevada. Lots of those firearms that are purchased, they're crossing to California,” he said.

Yellow police tape cordoning off a parking lot says: Crime Scene, Do Not Cross!
Police cordon off the parking lot of a San Mateo County Sheriff's substation in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Jan. 24. (Wu Xiaoling/Xinhua via Getty Images)

“The idea of piecing together a patchwork of 50 states and coming up with a national policy is almost impossible in this country,” he said. “Not only are some states, like California, doing really good at regulating, … the problem is state lines, and how do we minimize the flow of firearms into areas that have very strict firearm laws?”

Spitzer said that there are remedies available to mitigate the scourge of gun violence.

“The guns used in crime are a very small subset,” Spitzer said. “They are mostly handguns and guns that have been relatively recently purchased. Even for mass shootings, where assault weapons are favored, they are generally recently purchased. This is where more detailed and uniform background check laws and permit laws can make a measurable difference, as they do in places that have them.”