In the wake of the deadliest high school shooting in U.S. history, the nation divided once again over Americans’ access to firearms, as gun-control advocates and foes disputed whether tougher laws across the country like those already enacted in California would have made a difference.
California law bans the sale or possession of assault rifles like the AR-15 that 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz bought legally in Florida and allegedly used Wednesday to kill 17 students and staff at his former Broward County, Florida, high school. And another recently enacted gun law in the Golden State allows police or family to get a court order to disarm people considered dangerous.
But whether those laws would have saved lives in South Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the scene of America’s latest mass shooting, was again the focus of renewed partisan debate. While President Donald Trump spoke for “a nation in grief” on Thursday, he avoided any mention of the weapon and instead focused on “the difficult issue of mental health,” saying he’ll meet with governors and attorneys general later this month.
“Making our schools and our children safer will be our top priority,” Trump said. “It is not enough to simply take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference. We must actually make that difference.”
The president’s speech did little to defuse the gun-control debate, as Democrats renewed their demand for tougher laws ahead of mid-term elections where they hope to regain control of Congress. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said she would “rather pass gun safety legislation than win the election.”
Gun control advocates like Amanda Wilcox, legislative advocate for the California Chapters of the Brady Campaign, said California-style laws might have limited the deadliness of the alleged Florida shooter’s gun and perhaps disarmed him before he set off on his rampage.
“One is preventing shooting in the first place,” Wilcox said. “The other is decreasing the” deadliness.
Gun rights advocates raised skepticism, however, arguing the focus should be on stopping criminals and the mentally disturbed rather than restricting access to weapons.
“The banning of the firearms used in the commission of crimes will not stop the commission of crimes by criminals or people who are mentally disturbed,” said Sam Paredes executive director of Gun Owners of California. “As long as the focus is on guns and not on the individuals who commit these crimes, these crimes are going to continue to happen.”
Florida has no state restrictions on assault weapons or ammunition magazine capacity.
A federal assault weapons ban enacted in 1994 and authored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that also prohibited magazines with more than 10-round capacity was allowed to expire 10 years later. Lawmakers cited studies showing it had little effect on shooting deaths because the weapons were seldom used in crimes and spree shootings were relatively rare. Congressional efforts to reinstate it have failed, most recently in 2013.
By contrast, California has some of the nation’s most restrictive gun laws. Among other things, it is illegal to buy or possess military-style assault rifles. Those are generally defined as semiautomatic firearms with pistol grips and detachable, multi-round ammunition clips that allow the shooter to quickly and accurately fire multiple shots before having to reload.
California law bans firearms with detachable high-capacity ammunition magazines — including those with a so-called “bullet button” that allows a gun user to quickly reload — and limits magazine capacity to no more than 10 rounds. It’s unclear how many rounds Cruz’ alleged gun could fire before reloading, but police said he carried extra loaded magazines.
The Golden State’s laws also aim to keep guns out of the hands of disturbed people. The state two years ago enacted one of the nation’s only “gun violence restraining order” laws. Gun-control advocates said such laws, also in place in Washington, Oregon and Connecticut, might have disarmed Cruz by letting police or family members petition a court to temporarily remove weapons from a troubled person.
Students had apparently believed Cruz, who had been expelled for “disciplinary reasons” according to the county sheriff, was a likely candidate to “shoot up the school.” A teacher said school staff were alerted not to let him on campus with a backpack. And last year the FBI was alerted to a 2017 YouTube comment that said “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” though the agency said it couldn’t identify Cruz as the speaker.
Garen Wintemute, director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis Medical Center, said “a gun violence restraining order could have made the difference here.”
“It appears that there was plenty of advance notice” of Cruz’ menacing intent, Wintemute added.
Last month, San Diego authorities used a gun violence restraining order to disarm a man who had been shooting at raccoons and rats in his neighborhood while drunk. He was forced to surrender his guns for a year.
Wilcox said the law provides a means to disarm people with no violent or mental health history.
“The problem is that there are people who are not prohibited from owning a gun, they haven’t committed a crime yet, they have never been hospitalized for mental health, yet they’re at risk for violence,” Wilcox said.
But the California law has limits, and state lawmakers want to expand it. Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, is reintroducing legislation that would allow school officials, employers, coworkers and mental health officials to file for such restraining orders as well as police and family. Gov. Jerry Brown had vetoed such a measure two years ago, arguing the restraining orders were too new at the time to warrant expansion.
“We really felt as we started seeing more incidents in the workplace as well as schools that it was so important to expand the number of people who could access that restraining order,” Ting said.
Paredes said that while gun-rights advocates generally support measures that give law enforcement more tools to stop would-be killers before they go on a rampage, he’s skeptical of measures like gun violence restraining orders that he said focus on the weapon.
“They try to demonize guns instead of demonizing behavior,” Paredes said. “As long as you do that, you’ll continue to have the behavior.”
A more effective approach, he said, would be to simply ask police to conduct a mental health check on the person.
President Trump on Thursday called Cruz “mentally disturbed” on Twitter and urged people to “report such instances to authorities, again and again!”
That drew criticism from gun-control advocates who noted he had eliminated a proposal that would have red-flagged about 75,000 people in gun background checks who receive Social Security mental health disability payments and need help from others managing their benefits.
That measure however would not have affected Cruz, and gun-rights groups argued it was overly broad. Paredes said it would affect many elderly people who otherwise were not a public risk.
“It would be inherently and grossly unfair to many citizens of America,” Paredes said.
Gun Control in California and Florida
Assault weapon ban: California (yes) Florida (no)
10-round magazine limit: California (yes) Florida (no)
All gun sales through licensed dealer: California (yes) Florida (no)
Gun violence restraining order: California (yes) Florida (no)
Armed and Prohibited Persons System to disarm convicted criminals, mentally ill:
California (yes) Florida (no)
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