The reaction from Governor Gavin Newsom (D.) to two horrifying mass shootings terrorizing Californians in the same week was swift. He called for Congress to adopt California’s gun laws as a solution. But there are significant problems with that argument.
Newsom argued the state’s laws, while they have failed to stop every mass shooting, are the reason the state has a lower “gun death” rate than many other states. He notes California’s gun death rate is even 37 percent lower rate than the national average, an example of why the nation should respond to California’s mass shootings by adopting California’s gun laws.
“The Second Amendment is becoming a suicide pact,” Newsom told CBS News while insisting he has respect for gun owners. “I just want to take away weapons of war that are illegal in California and should be illegal across the United States.”
But gun deaths, also a popular stat among gun-control advocates and organizations, are a poor way to judge the impact of gun laws on preventing mass killings or murder. That’s because it lumps together murders, accidental deaths, and suicides. And suicides are the most common form of gun death, making up more than half of gun deaths in the past two years and 2/3rds in the years preceding the recent national spike in murders.
While suicide and its intersection with the gun control debate is an important topic, when it comes to concerns about the criminal use of guns against others, it is gun-related homicide statistics that are the far more relevant metric. And when that is the measuring stick, California is much less remarkable.
California is rated highly by gun control groups because it has things like an “assault weapons” ban, magazine capacity laws, universal background checks, strict concealed carry permit policies, and much more. That is why it makes for an interesting comparison to Arizona, California’s next-door neighbor that is just about the exact opposite and has few of the signature gun control laws Newsom wants Congress to adopt. While Everytown gives California a “Gun Law Strength” score of 86.5, Arizona gets just an 8.5.
But Arizona’s gun-murder rate isn’t much different from California’s rate. The states are quite close to each other most years. For example, in 2020, Arizona had 5.1 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people, compared to 4.4 per 100,000 for California. Similar figures hold for all of California’s more pro-gun neighbors too. Nevada, while not quite as friendly to gun rights as Arizona, has no assault weapons ban, no high-capacity magazine restrictions, and the state allows residents to openly carry guns without a permit. Oregon hasn’t traditionally had a lot of gun-control laws and still has no assault weapon restrictions, though it did enact magazine capacity restrictions through a narrow vote last year that is currently held up in court.
All three of California’s immediate neighbors are less strict on guns to varying degrees, yet CDC data shows California’s gun-related homicide rate isn’t even the lowest of the four and is only marginally better than Arizona and Nevada.
Expanding beyond just the west coast region, several other states that are favorable to gun rights (or at least much more favorable to them relative to California) can boast gun-related homicide rates that are similar to or less than California’s, including: Maine, North Dakota, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Minnesota, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Montana, Alaska, Colorado, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Virginia, Kansas, and Florida. California’s gun-related homicide rate is certainly not terrible, but it is just as certainly not especially low, with many pro-gun states enjoying a similar rate or better.
If California’s stringent gun laws are not leading to exceptional results in terms of gun-related homicides, are they at least leading to less mass shootings? Governor Newsom has argued as much. His webpage quotes the Public Policy Institute of California, which explains that “Compared to citizens of other states, Californians are about 25% less likely to die in mass shootings. Between 2019 and 2021, the state’s annual mass shooting homicide rate of 1.4 per one million people was lower than the national average of 1.9.”
That may be so, but 2019-2021 seems like an oddly restrictive timeframe to limit the examination to, particularly when California has had many of its gun laws for several years. After all the state’s assault weapons ban dates all the way back to 1989.
A couple of different sources track mass shootings based on widely varying criteria. While no definition is perfect, Mother Jones’s database does a good job of only including the types of events that people are likely to have in mind when they think of a “mass shooting.” They include incidents where the perpetrator killed at least three people in a public place. And they exclude gang-related shootings as well.
Mother Jones’s data, which stretches back to 1982, tells us that through the present day 1,092 Americans have been killed in mass shootings. Of those, 175 were killed in shootings that occurred in California, meaning the state has about 16% of the nation’s mass shooting deaths despite only having roughly 12% of the nation’s population. California thus has slightly more mass shootings deaths than its share of the population would suggest.
Even getting away from the fatality counts and just measuring based on the frequency of these events does not help California’s case. California accounts for 26 out of the 140 mass shootings on Mother Jones’s list, or roughly 18.5%, again out of proportion to the State’s 12% share of the population.
So, the state’s policies don’t appear to performing as well on stopping gun murder or even mass shootings as Newsom’s use of the gun death rate seems to imply. But it may also mislead on how well California’s gun laws have performed at preventing suicides.
According to the CDC, in the year 2000, California had 4.4 gun-related suicides per 100,000 people. By 2020, that had dropped only slightly, to 3.9 per 100,000. We also don’t have proof that California’s gun laws led to that 0.5 per 100,000 reduction. Additionally, in the same timeframe, California’s overall suicide rate actually rose.
In 2000, it was 8.8 per 100,000 but reached 10.5 per 100,000 by 2020.
That means fewer people in California are committing suicide with firearms than two decades ago, but slightly more are committing suicide overall. The best that can be said is that it seems California’s gun-control laws may have limited the number of people using firearms to commit suicide, but it sadly appears that has been offset by more Californians using other methods to carry out the act.
Governor Newsom’s claims that California’s gun laws have worked to reduce “gun deaths” is at the very least misleading, relying heavily on suicide data to hold onto any claim of being accurate. Many states that take the opposite approach, or at least don’t go nearly as far as California on gun control, have similar or better results in terms of gun-related homicide. And the state isn’t doing any better at preventing mass shootings either.