If there’s one thing gun control advocates and the gun lobby can agree on, it’s this: California has some of the strictest gun laws in the country.
The state already has adopted some of the measures President Barack Obama has repeatedly called for, including background checks on all gun sales and a ban on military-style assault weapons. In 2014, it became the first state to enact a controversial law that allows courts to issue temporary orders to remove guns from people believed to be dangerous.
None of those measures stopped the shooting massacre in San Bernardino on Wednesday that left 14 people dead and 21 wounded.
Syed Rizwan Farook, 28, and Tashfeen Malik, 27, were armed with two handguns and two .223-caliber rifles when they opened fire at Inland Regional Center. They were carrying more than 1,400 .223-caliber rounds and 200 9mm rounds when they were killed in a shootout with police, San Bernardino Police Chief Jarrod Burguan said.
The DPMS Model 815 and the Smith & Wesson M&P MODEL 15 rifles are legal in California, thanks to a feature on them that excludes them from the state’s assault weapons ban. Even though the semi-automatics were purchased legally, they were modified to render at least one fully automatic, a law enforcement official told CNN.
The handguns were traced to Farook, who purchased them legally three or four years ago, a law enforcement official told CNN. The rifles were purchased by Farook’s former roommate a few years ago. That person isn’t believed to have anything to do with the shootings.
After this week’s shooting, Obama said it was time to make it harder for dangerous people to obtain weapons. His comments prompted the National Rifle Association to accuse him of exploiting the tragedy to promote his “gun control agenda.”
“Policy discussions should be intellectually honest and based on facts, not politics,” Chris Cox, the executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in an op-ed in USA Today.
“In California, President Obama had what he wanted — the strictest gun control in the country — and it did not prevent this evil act,” he wrote.
Gun control advocates say blaming existing laws is the wrong approach.
“Nothing is going to change what happened in California this week. What we’re focused on is, what can we do to prevent the next tragedy? What can we do that will actually work towards saving lives?” said Lizzie Ulmer, spokeswoman for gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety. “The answer to that question is that we need to immediately close the huge gaps in our laws that make it far too easy for dangerous people to get guns.”
California already has taken several steps beyond minimum gun-control requirements set by federal law. For one, it requires more buyers to go through a background check before purchasing a firearm.
Under federal law, whenever someone tries to buy a firearm from a licensed gun dealer, that dealer is required to search the prospective buyer’s name in an FBI database to find out if the person is ineligible to purchase a gun because of a criminal record, drug abuse or if the person has been “adjucated mental defective or involuntarily committed to a mental institution.”
But not all guns are sold through licensed dealers. Private sellers, often referred to hobbyists or enthusiasts because they do not “engage in the business” of selling firearms, are exempt from obtaining a dealers’ license, and therefore, are not required to perform background checks.
Not so in California. With limited exceptions, all gun sales must go through licensed dealers, who are subject to various statutory requirements. Prospective buyers are required to submit to a background check on all sales, even at gun shows.
People intending to buy guns also must obtain a Firearm Safety Certificate by passing a written test. There is also a mandatory 10-day waiting period for all sales.
State law regarding assault weapons also goes beyond federal guidelines. With limited exceptions for law enforcement and hobbyists, California prohibits the sale or possession of assault weapons. These include semiautomatic rifles that can accept a detachable ammunition magazine and have other specified features, such as a pistol grip, a folding stock, or a grenade launcher.
However, an ammunition magazine is not considered detachable if it requires a tool to remove it from the weapon. Such a feature — also known as a “bullet button” — makes the weapon legal under California law. It’s meant to slow you down so you can’t quickly change magazines to keep shooting.
As originally sold, the semiautomatic rifles used in the San Bernardino massacre were equipped with “bullet buttons” that made them legal.
Seeking political solutions
Taking a cue from Obama, Senate Democrats used a procedural tactic to bring two gun-control measures up for a vote Thursday.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia proposed expanding background checks for guns purchased online and at gun shows. An amendment from Sen. Dianne Feinstein aimed to prevent individuals on the terrorist watch list from purchasing firearms.
The Senate tried to pass similar language to the Manchin amendment in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012. The bill lost the support of four Democrats but gained an equal number of Republican votes.
Thursday’s votes did not go any better for gun control advocates. Both measures failed.