California: Did tough gun control laws cut firearms deaths?

Updated
By Frank Smyth
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca tosses a pistol onto a pile of guns to be melted at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's 20th annual Gun Melt at...
Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca tosses a pistol onto a pile of guns to be melted at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's 20th annual Gun Melt at...
David McNew/Reuters

Do gun control laws work? New figures from the nation’s most populous state, which also happens to have the nation’s toughest statewide gun laws, suggest they do.

California passed some of the nation’s toughest gun laws over the past two decades, and gun deaths across the state have declined by more than half, according to a new study by a California-based nonprofit research group.

Gun violence across California dropped 56% from 5,500 gun deaths in 1993 to 2,935 in 2010, according to the study, which took into account California’s expanded population from about 30 to 37 million people over the same period.

Among all 50 states, California has perhaps the strongest gun control laws. “California is at the very top end of firearms regulation,” legal expert Bryan L. Ciyou and author of “Gun Laws By State” told msnbc.

California has at least 30 gun laws in place including a ban on military-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, requirements of safety design for handguns, and various steps to help law enforcement authorities get guns out of the hands of felons and domestic abusers.

Gun control advocates credit these laws for the reduction in gun-related fatalities. Gun rights activists disagree, saying most of the laws have had no impact.

“In the early 1990s, California’s gun laws were weak and full of gaps, and the toll of gun violence across the state rose to unprecedented levels –at one point 15 percent higher than the national average,” reads the study by the San Francisco-based Law Center to Prevent gun Violence. Now California’s gun laws are “the strongest in the nation” and “the state’s gun death rate has plummeted.”

“Their analysis is a bunch of sheep dip,” Sam Paredes told msnbc, borrowing a metaphor from the 1976 film The Shootist starring John Wayne. Paredes, a board member of Gun Owners of America who is also active with Gun Owners of California, said, “They ignore the fact that gun deaths have been going down nationwide for over 20 years.”

Across the nation gun violence has dropped about 29.5% over same period, reports the new study by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The rate of gun-related homicides has dropped more dramatically, by almost half across the United States since the early 1990s, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center. The rate of gun-related suicides has fallen less sharply.

Is California with its strict gun laws a potential model for the rest of the nation?

“Two to three thousand less people dying a year has a tremendous impact on communities,” Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, told msnbc. “What it says for California is that the pro-active approach we’ve taken to addressing gun violence is paying off.”

“Gun violence is decreasing across the country,” Thomas said. “But the numbers indicate we could be doing better. We’re losing a lot of lives because we are not addressing the gun violence epidemic in a smart, systemic and common sense way.”

Among all the industrialized nations, 80% of all firearms deaths occur in the United States.

Some of the gun laws passed by California since the late 1990s include prohibiting the manufacture or sale of handguns that lack safety standards, and requiring new handgun models to include “chamber load indicators” to help prevent accidental shootings.

California also passed laws to ban ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, and a test to define what constitutes a banned military-style “assault” weapon.

California created the first database of individuals with legally-purchased firearms who subsequently were prohibited from possessing them (for example, being under a domestic abuse restraining order). The state required retailers to keep records of handgun ammunition sales, and all rifle and shotgun sales.

Groups like Gun Owners of America and the National Rifle Association have long opposed the creation of any database involving gun owners or sales. The gun lobby also opposes limits on magazine capacities and military-style firearms.

But gun rights groups do support some of California’s initiatives, like increased penalties for individuals convicted of using guns in crimes.

“The vast majority of crimes are committed by a small subset of society, they are repeat offenders,” gun rights activist Paredes told msnbc. “We think that if you use a gun in the commission of a crime, you should spend a long time in jail”

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California: Did tough gun control laws cut firearms deaths?

Updated