In a Nation Awash in Guns, California Laws Can’t Keep Out the Violence

One of California’s top experts on violence prevention explains why.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who signed several gun safety bills into law last year, spoke to reporters in Monterey Park on Monday.
Credit...Alisha Jucevic for The New York Times

LOS ANGELES — California has some of the most stringent gun laws in the country, including various bans on assault-style weapons and other measures meant to keep firearms out of the hands of people who might use them to harm themselves or others.

Last year, in response to the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, state lawmakers — urged by Gov. Gavin Newsom, an outspoken critic of gun policies in Republican-led states and at the federal level — approved a barrage of new measures.

Yet as the body count from mass shootings continues to pile up in the nation’s most populous state, many Californians are left asking: Why? And how?

Gun policy experts said that a national culture that accepts routine violence, combined with an inability to enforce gun controls in one state that is surrounded by others where rules are more lax, means that California will continue to grapple with public mass violence.

“We are part of a culture that celebrates violence as a means of problem-solving in a country that has made firearms more available than any industrialized country ever,” said Dr. Garen J. Wintemute, an emergency room doctor who directs the Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California, Davis, Medical Center. “We have no right to be surprised when these things happen.”

The authorities this week said that they were still investigating where the gunman in the Monterey Park shooting, in which 11 people were killed and several others wounded, obtained weapons, and whether those weapons are banned in California. Investigators were also trying to discern whether California laws would have prevented the suspect from legally possessing guns after a 1994 arrest in which he was accused of the unlawful possession of a firearm.

Dr. Wintemute said that the complexity of California’s gun control laws and when they went into effect make determining the legality of any given person’s possession of weapons difficult to resolve.

Beyond California’s borders, moves by conservative state lawmakers and the Supreme Court to roll back restrictions on gun ownership seem to be part of a broad effort to take gun policy to its “logical extreme,” removing essentially all controls, Dr. Wintemute said.

The responsibility to prevent mass shootings, he said, rests with ordinary Californians, who — unlike Americans in many other states — can report threats by co-workers, family members or partners under the state’s red flag law, which went into effect in 2016 and prevents certain people from obtaining firearms.

“We’re angry, we’re polarized, we’re exhausted,” Dr. Wintemute said. “All of us have to make a choice to step up and be a part of the solution. The only alternative is this will continue.”