Following Wednesday’s shooting rampage that left 14 people dead and 21 injured at a social services center in San Bernardino, California, a number of gun rights activists have taken aim at the Golden State’s gun control laws, which – despite being some of the strictest in the nation – failed to prevent the tragedy from happening.
Many questions about the massacre have yet to be answered, such as what the motive was and how exactly the two suspects – 28-year-old Syed Farook and 27-year-old Tashfeen Malik – obtained their weapons. Both were killed in a shootout with police.
One thing remains clear, though: Gun rights activists consider Wednesday’s shooting evidence that gun safety regulations don’t work.
The narrative cuts to the heart of what gun control advocates have been trying to accomplish in recent years – that is, tightening firearm restrictions at the state level in the absence of congressional action. By most accounts, their efforts have been successful. Since 2013, when the then-Democratic controlled Senate failed to advance a bill that would have expanded background checks for gun purchases, six states have closed gun-sale loopholes – bringing to 18 the total number of states that require background checks for some or all private sales, and prompting many gun control advocates to champion the arrival of a tipping point on the issue.
Through this state-by-state approach to enacting nationwide reform, California has served as a kind of guiding light. The nation’s most populous state already has some of the toughest gun laws, requiring prospective buyers to produce a Firearm Safety Certificate and sit through a 10-day waiting period before purchasing any kind of gun. The state also operates an expensive program to track down and seize illegally-owned guns from felons, domestic violence offenders, drug abusers, or people who have been committed for mental illness. Additionally, a 1999 law bans the manufacture, import or sale of any semiautomatic rifle, pistol or magazine that can hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition – a standard that was at the time considerably stricter than the existing federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004.
California could go even further in its gun restrictions. Earlier this year, the state’s Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who is running for governor, unveiled a sweeping proposal for next year’s ballot that would make California the first state in the nation to implement background checks for ammunition sales, not just gun sales. If adopted, the ballot initiative would also require gun owners to get rid of their large-capacity magazines – the manufacture and sale (but the possession) of which are already prohibited under the 1999 law.
With such a stellar record on gun control, California seems like the least likely place for a mass shooting. So how, then, did it happen? And does it mean gun control is a lost cause?
The data still shows that states with tighter gun control laws have fewer gun deaths. And while it may be true that “California has good laws,” as Ladd Everitt, communications director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, told MSNBC, it doesn’t mean that California is “immune to gun violence.”
No state is, or probably ever could be.
President Obama touched on this point in his initial reaction to Wednesday’s shooting. “The one thing we do know is that we have a pattern now of mass shootings in this country that has no parallel anywhere else in the world,” Obama told CBS News as the shooting was still unfolding. “And there are some steps that we could take – not to eliminate every one of these mass shootings – but to improve the odds that they don’t happen as frequently.”
Another important thing to keep in mind is that being the toughest state in America on guns isn’t exactly saying much. As Bustle’s S.E. Smith pointed out, “while California law may seem extremely strict to some, it’s highly loose when compared with gun control laws in other nations, like New Zealand, Japan, and Britain.”
“The problem isn’t that the laws were too strict, and that shooters would acquire guns by any means possible and thus that we should give up on gun control altogether,” wrote Smith. “It’s that the laws are patently not strict enough.”
Newsom acknowledged California’s shortcomings on gun control when he introduced his ballot initiative last October. “There’s been a gap between perception and reality,” he told MSNBC at the time, “the perception being that California is on the cutting edge of gun safety legislation when, in fact, there are a number of areas where we have fallen behind.”
The bottom line, however, is that there are still too many unknowns in this case to determine if stricter gun laws could have prevented it. Officials said Thursday the two handguns and two long guns used in the massacre were purchased legally, but from where? And by whom? If the suspects used pipe bombs, which were found in their home and at the scene, instead of firearms, gun control surely wouldn’t have mattered. But that doesn’t mean it needs to be another casualty.