‘Only in America’: California Grapples With a Mounting Toll of Gun Violence

With at least 19 people killed in mass shootings in the state in less than three days, the attacks posed another challenge for beleaguered Californians.

A gunman killed seven people at two locations in Half Moon Bay, Calif., on Monday, shaking a state that was still mourning another mass shooting less than 48 hours before.
Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

HALF MOON BAY, Calif. — A barrage of gun violence left California searching for answers on Tuesday after the death toll from a series of mass shootings, spanning the state from a farmworker community near San Francisco to a Los Angeles suburb, rose to at least 19 people in less than three days.

The attacks posed yet another challenge for beleaguered Californians, who have only begun to recover from weeks of ferocious rainstorms that flooded homes and smashed piers and levees. Even in a vast state of nearly 40 million people, most everyone was feeling the anguish, no matter where they live.

“We’re exhausted, we’re frightened, we’re angry,” Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency room doctor who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center, said.

In Northern California, a 66-year-old man was in custody after seven people were shot dead on Monday near Half Moon Bay, a coastal community known for its small, fog-draped farms and an annual pumpkin festival. Officials at the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said the suspect, Zhao Chunli, had been employed at one of the farms he attacked and was likely driven by workplace grievances.

In Southern California, investigators continued searching for a motive in the massacre on Saturday night at a ballroom dance hall in Monterey Park, an Asian American enclave where 11 people were killed and nine were wounded. The suspect — Huu Can Tran, 72, a former volunteer dance instructor who the authorities said may have been driven by personal animosities — killed himself on Sunday as the police approached his white van.

Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times
Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Those tragedies, however, were only two in a series of mass shootings this month in a state that, overall, has some of the nation’s lowest mortality rates from gun violence, as well as some of its toughest gun laws. Last week, in an attack that the authorities compared to a drug cartel-style execution, six people were shot dead in rural Tulare County in California’s Central Valley, including a 16-year-old girl and her 10-month-old baby. On Monday night, one person was killed and seven people were wounded in a gun battle in Oakland.

On Tuesday, Gavin Newsom, the California governor, visited Half Moon Bay about 24 hours after trying to console injured victims in Monterey Park. Governor Newsom had been at a hospital when he learned of the Half Moon Bay shootings, he said.

“I didn’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be here,” Mr. Newsom said, pulling notes out of his pocket that he said contained the same talking points he used after mass shootings at a San Jose transit yard, a garlic festival in Gilroy and a cowboy-themed bar in Thousand Oaks.

“I started writing ‘Monterey Park.’ Now I have to write in ‘Half Moon Bay.’ What the hell is going on here?” he asked. “It’s said, and it’s said all the time: Only in America.”

In Washington, there was renewed talk of pursuing new gun measures, including legislation introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, to reimpose the assault rifle ban which expired nearly two decades ago.

But the mass shootings in California have once again underscored a political reality on Capitol Hill: Even after a series of massacres that have shaken the country, Congress is unlikely to muster a bipartisan consensus to enact any additional gun control measures.

Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times
Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times

President Biden said that he was “working out a number of things that we can and are going to be doing” to address gun violence in conjunction with leaders from California.

“I am asking you all to send that to my desk as quickly as you can,” Mr. Biden said, even though he knew the chances of it passing Congress were slim to none.

On Tuesday night, Speaker Kevin McCarthy told reporters that California, his home state, already had some of the strictest gun laws in the nation. And he said he would not commit to taking up any new gun laws until he had more information about the shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park, which he described as atypical because of the older age of the gunmen.

California’s rate of firearm mortality has been among the nation’s lowest, with 8.5 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2020, compared with 13.7 per 100,000 nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported. A recent Public Policy Institute of California analysis found that Californians are about 25 percent less likely to die in mass shootings, compared with residents of other states.

Those odds, however, were cold comfort on Tuesday as communities impacted by recent shootings sought answers.

In Half Moon Bay, a city of about 12,000 people that remains isolated enough to maintain a small-town vibe that has disappeared elsewhere in the San Francisco Bay Area, residents struggled to comprehend how the ongoing wave of violence reached their sliver of the Pacific Coast. Pancho Purica, 62, the owner of a convenience store selling tortillas, beer and spices, wondered aloud whether the world had become “cuckoo.”

Fatima Machado, who was working in the parish office of Our Lady of the Pillar, said the town seemed unusually empty, with almost no cars on the road. She thought people were staying home after the shock of the shooting.

“It’s just so surreal that this happened in our little town,” Ms. Machado, 70, said. “You see it on the news. Monterey Park, Oakland — but those are big places. Not Half Moon Bay.”

Steve Wagstaffe, the district attorney in San Mateo County, which includes Half Moon Bay, said that the scope of the investigation posed a challenge even for a jurisdiction in the heart of Silicon Valley. “Cases like this — we’ve never had one in this county,” he said.

The sheriff’s office was still working Tuesday to identify the victims and notify their families, a process that was complicated by the fact that some of the victims were migrants. All the victims were adults, and some lived at the location of one of the shootings along with children, Sheriff Christina Corpus said.

“It was in the afternoon, when kids were out of school,” she said. “For children to witness this is unspeakable.”

San Mateo County authorities said the suspect in the Half Moon Bay shootings, who is expected to be formally charged on Wednesday, had lived in the community and may have worked with some of the victims, and had legally purchased the semiautomatic handgun he used in the shooting.

“There were no specific indicators” in the criminal history of Mr. Zhao, the suspect, a spokesman for the sheriff’s department added, “that would have led us to believe he was capable of something like this.”

Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times
Credit...Mark Abramson for The New York Times

But in court documents filed in a 2013 request for a temporary restraining order, a roommate accused Mr. Zhao of threatening to split his head open with a knife and trying to suffocate him after a workplace dispute in which Mr. Zhou had quit a restaurant job and was unable to get it back.

In his application for the order, which a Santa Clara County judge granted, Jingjiu Wang wrote that Mr. Zhao had crept into his room at their shared San Jose apartment in March 2013 and demanded his paycheck. When Mr. Wang was unable to produce it, he said, “Mr. Zhao said to me, today I am going to kill you,” and then attacked him, trying to smother him with a pillow. Two days later, he said, Mr. Zhao warned him that “bad things could happen” and threatened to bury a kitchen knife in his skull if he did not help him get the restaurant job back.

In Los Angeles County, investigators said that, like the Half Moon Bay suspect, the gunman in Monterey Park had legally purchased the semiautomatic weapon with which the massacre was committed. According to two law enforcement officials briefed on the matter who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the investigation, Mr. Tran had bought his MAC-10, which was equipped with an extended capacity magazine, in the 1990s, before California began imposing a series of bans on such rapid-fire weapons.

Officials said they are still trying to determine if the gun had been altered in a way that would have made it illegal to possess at the time of the shooting. Detectives also have seized two other guns in the investigation: the handgun the police say Mr. Tran used to shoot himself as pursuing officers closed in on him Sunday after a regionwide manhunt and a rifle found at his home in a Hemet, Calif., trailer park.

In Southern California, the authorities released the names of the 11 people who were killed in the Saturday night shooting as families mourned the loss of beloved parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters.

The Los Angeles County coroner’s office, which has spelled the names of victims differently at various points this week, on Tuesday identified the six women as Diana Man Ling Tom, 70; Muoi Dai Ung, 67; My My Nhan, 65; Lilian Li, 63; Hongying Jian, 62; and Xiujuan Yu, 57. The five men were identified as Chia Ling Yau, 76; Ming Wei Ma, 72; Yu Lun Kao, 72; Valentino Marcos Alvero, 68; and Wen Tau Yu, 64.

New details emerged on Tuesday that were both heartbreaking and horrific.

Shortly after 10 p.m. on Saturday, Ms. Nhan, 65, and her dance partner that night, an older man, decided to leave the Lunar New Year celebration at Star Ballroom Dance Studio a little early.

Ms. Nhan was driving, and she was beginning to back up when she noticed a figure walking behind her vehicle. She stepped on the brake to allow the person to keep going. Within seconds, the interaction turned tragic.

In the quiet parking lot, the figure — later identified by the authorities as the gunman — walked up to the driver’s side window and shot Ms. Nhan several times. Ms. Nhan, known as Mymy, was the first person fatally shot in the rampage. Her passenger managed to escape uninjured and recount Ms. Nhan’s last moments to her relatives.

Ms. Nhan gravitated toward any activity she considered part of a healthy lifestyle, like ballroom dancing — especially salsa and waltz, her niece, Fonda Quan, said, adding that Ms. Nhan had also been taking care of her mother, who died a little more than a month ago.

After grieving for weeks, she said, “we were really looking forward to, you know, start that Lunar New Year fresh. And unfortunately, this happened.”

Victoria Kim contributed reporting from Monterey Park, Tim Arango, Jill Cowan and Livia Albeck-Ripka from Los Angeles and Anabel Sosa and Irene Benedicto from Half Moon Bay. Reporting was also contributed by Edgar Sandoval, Peter Baker, Annie Karni, Ang Li and Muyi Xiao. Susan C. Beachy and Kitty Bennett contributed research.