In the wake of the deadliest high school shooting 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.
Would stricter gun laws have saved lives in Broward County, Florida, where on Wednesday a disturbed 19-year-old former student with an AR-15 rifle allegedly killed 17 students and staff members? While President Donald Trump spoke for “a nation in grief” on Thursday, he avoided any mention of the assault-style weapon alleged shooter Nikolas Cruz used to carry out the country’s latest mass shooting and instead focused on “the difficult issue of mental health.”
“Later this month, I will be meeting with the nation’s governors and attorney generals, where 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 while gun rights advocates raised skepticism, 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.”
But gun control advocates like Amanda Wilcox, legislative advocate for the California Chapters of the Brady Campaign, said California-style laws would have not only limited the deadliness of the shooter’s gun but provided extra measures to disarm him before he set off on his rampage.
“One is preventing shooting in first place,” Wilcox said. “The other is decreasing the lethality within a specific incident.”
Florida, has no state restrictions on assault weapons, ammunition magazine capacity or private firearm sales. Cruz legally bought his assault rifle at a local gun shop.
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, like the one Cruz used in Wednesday’s massacre. 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 aimed to get around detachable clip restrictions. State law also limits magazine capacity to no more than 10 rounds.
“Assault weapons or military weapons have features on the gun that let you maintain control and aim, and exchangeable magazines where you can quickly and easily reload and maintain your fire,” Wilcox said. “That’s how you can kill so many people.”
But California also has laws aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of disturbed people.
California also requires all firearms sales to be conducted through a licensed dealer who conducts a background check, and starting in July 2019 will require background checks on ammunition purchases as well.
California is the only state in the country with an Armed and Prohibited Persons System program to track firearm owners and provide legal authority to disarm convicted criminals, people with certain mental illnesses, and others deemed dangerous.
California two years ago enacted one of the nation’s only “gun violence restraining order” laws, one that gun-control advocates said might have been able to disarm Cruz by letting police or family members petition a court to temporarily remove weapons from a troubled person.
“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. “Under this law, family members or law enforcement can petition a court for a temporary firearm prohibition where there’s a risk of harm to one’s self or others.”
Last month, San Diego authorities used the law 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.
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. Gov. Jerry Brown had vetoed such a measure two years ago, arguing the gun violence 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.
But 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.”
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.” Last year the FBI investigated a 2017 YouTube comment that said “I’m going to be a professional school shooter,” though the agency said it couldn’t identify him as the speaker.
“It appears that there was plenty of advance notice” of Cruz’ menacing intent, Wintemute added.
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 needed help from others managing their benefits.
Gun-rights groups argued the proposed rule 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.