Gun laws trigger political theater
By Dan Walters
The fusillade of bullets around 10th and K streets in April that left six people dead and a dozen wounded generated demands for new gun controls in a state that already has the nation’s most restrictive firearms laws.
However, what happened Downtown underscores the folly of believing that “gun violence” can be meaningfully reduced by trying to choke off the supply of firearms, with as much success as the prohibition of liquor or the war on drugs.
The state’s gun laws have hassled law-abiding hunters and gun hobbyists. Some are in danger of being declared unconstitutional. But Californians already own more than 20 million rifles, shotguns and handguns. They buy hundreds of thousands more each year.
Nor have these laws prevented the lawless from obtaining weapons via theft, smuggling or the illicit manufacture of untraceable “ghost guns.” Indeed, state restrictions have made the black market even more lucrative, mirroring the side effects of Prohibition and the drug war.
Initial evidence indicates that the people who fired more than 100 rounds in a crowded street probably violated one or more gun laws. The two brothers who police quickly arrested were first charged with illegal possession of weapons. One allegedly possessed an illegal, fully automatic firearm.
So why, if California’s much-vaunted gun-control laws have failed to choke off the supply of legal and illegal weapons, do politicians claim enacting more laws will have an effect?
Some may believe it, evidence notwithstanding, while others want to appear to do something about a problem because they don’t have any other answers. And those who propose and enact new gun laws are often woefully ignorant about guns or even existing laws.
In the aftermath of the shooting, Sacramento Mayor Darrell Steinberg lamented about California’s difficulty in reducing the number of guns, saying, “You just have to go to a gun show in Reno to buy an assault weapon without a background check and come right back to California.”
Advocates of more laws often cite a “gun show loophole,” but it’s a myth. Under federal law, one must be a resident of Nevada and undergo a federal background check to legally buy a gun in Reno.
Moreover, while California professes to have banned “assault weapons,” the state’s definition of them involves cosmetic features, rather than lethality. Perfectly legal semi-automatic rifles that lack those features are available for sale everywhere in the state.
The newest effort at gun control in California, backed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would authorize personal lawsuits against the manufacturers and sellers of illegal assault rifles or ghost guns, mirroring a new Texas law allowing suits against those who perform abortions.
The legislation, Senate Bill 1327, is just a stunt—one of Newsom’s periodic jabs at a rival state. People who could be sued under the bill are already committing criminal acts in California and a federal law prohibits suits against manufacturers of legal firearms, including the “assault weapons” that California and a few other states purport (but fail) to outlaw.
The bottom line: Actor Alec Baldwin’s claims notwithstanding, guns don’t fire on their own. Someone must accidentally or purposely pull the trigger. That should be the focus of efforts to reduce violence—such as more vigorous enforcement of laws banning gun possession by felons and people under court order.
Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, most of that time working for California newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.