The modern American gun debate began in 1967, when 30 protesting members of the Black Panther Party marched into the California Capitol with loaded handguns, shotguns and rifles. In California there were few restrictions on carrying loaded weapons in public.
That soon changed. The Panthers’ efforts to “police the police” already had led Republican Assemblyman Don Mulford to propose legislation to ban the “open carry” of loaded firearms within California cities and towns. After the Panthers showed up in the Capitol, his bill sailed through and was signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan. It’s hard to say which now seems more unlikely: that two dozen revolutionaries could legally stroll into the state Assembly chamber with semi-automatic rifles, or that a Republican governor would champion stricter gun control.
In the years since, California’s progressive politicians have layered on restrictions while gun owners and manufacturers continue to try to find their way out of them.
On June 4, 2021 — National Gun Violence Awareness Day — a federal judge deemed California’s ban on assault weapons a “failed experiment” and unconstitutional, although he stayed his own ruling to give the state time to appeal, which it did. And on June 21, 2021, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the judge’s decision while other gun cases are pending. The case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
A 2016 ballot measure championed by Newsom required background checks to purchase ammunition, but that and another provision of the measure, banning high-capacity magazines were both declared unconstitutional by a federal district court judge. On Nov. 30, 2021, the ruling on magazines was reversed by a federal appeals court. It was a win for the state, but potentially a short-lived one. Gun rights activists plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to weigh in. But it’s also possible that the ruling could lead to one upholding the ban on assault weapons.
The battle continues. Gov. Gavin Newsom denounces “a gun lobby willing to sacrifice the lives of our children to line their pockets.” A National Rifle Association spokesman predicts the Trump-altered Supreme Court means “winter may very well be coming for gun laws in California.”
California has a reputation for being tough on guns. That reputation is well-earned.
Researchers at Boston University have counted 111 California laws that in some way restrict “the manner and space in which firearms can be used.” They include regulations on dealers and buyers, background check requirements, and possession bans directed at certain “high risk” individuals.
By their count, no other state out-regulates California when it comes to sheer quantity of rules. And we’ve held that top spot since at least 1991, the year the researchers started counting.
The Giffords Law Center To Prevent Gun Violence, a gun control advocacy group, awarded California one of only two “A” grades in its 2020 state gun law scorecard.
“There are not a lot of As out there,” said Ari Freilich, the organization’s California legislative affairs director. “California has driven the conversation nationally.”
In contrast, Guns and Ammo magazine labeled California the 5th worst state for gun owners. (Washington D.C. was the top jurisdiction, followed by New York.)
The story of how California became, according to many, the state with the nation’s most restrictive gun laws has largely followed a familiar pattern: alarm or tragedy, then a legislative response.
But as with any thorny sociological question—particularly one where lives, livelihoods, deeply held values and constitutional law all hang in the balance—it’s probably more complicated than that.
Do tight gun laws lead to lower deaths? Or is it that states with less gun violence (due to different cultural attitudes about guns or varying economic and demographic patterns) are more likely to adopt tighter gun controls?
There seems to be relatively strong evidence that denying firearms to at least certain “high-risk” individuals leads to lower levels of violence. Three separate studies found that in states that keep guns away from those under domestic violence restraining orders, gun homicide rates between partners are 9 to 25 percent lower. California has such a law on the books. A similar study found that denying guns to those with misdemeanor violent crime convictions reduced their chances of being rearrested for another violent crime by 30 percent. California has this type of gun ban in place too.
Do comprehensive background checks keep guns away from those who shouldn’t have them?
One study concluded California’s law had relatively little effect—suggesting vendors skirting the rules and lax enforcement could be why. But another study estimated that when states require gun vendors to get licensed, conduct background checks and are subject to inspection, gun homicides can be expected to fall by more than 50 percent. An overview of the research from the RAND Corporation found suggestive but “limited evidence that background checks reduce violent crime.”
And concealed carry laws?
A landmark economic study from the mid-1990s found evidence that making it easier for people to carry reduced crime, supporting the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” theory. But more recent research using the same statistical techniques but with a larger dataset claims to show the exact opposite.
“What probably has the greatest impact are a number of things acting together—just the pure volume of laws,” said Eric Fleegler, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children’s Hospital and professor at Harvard University. “We are studying legislation and not randomized control trials. But overall, when you look at systematic reviews of legislation on homicides and suicides, it is fairly clear that legislation designed to place reasonable restrictions on how firearms are sold or maintained or stored does lead to decreased fatality rates.”
Ben Christopher covers California politics and elections. Prior to that, he was a contributing writer for CalMatters reporting on the state’s economy and budget. Based out of the San Francisco Bay Area, he has written for San Francisco magazine, California magazine, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Priceonomics.