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‘The alarm bells are blazing’: Sacramento shooting spurs calls for action on gun violence

California has some of the strongest gun restrictions in the country, but it’s at the mercy of bordering states that have weaker gun laws, experts say.

After a mass shooting in Sacramento, California, left six people dead, lawmakers called for “bolder action” to tackle gun crimes, as the massacre in California’s capital underscored the challenges afflicting a state that already has some of the country’s toughest gun restrictions.

While several state legislators and gun-safety advocates rallied at the state Capitol building Tuesday for several gun reform bills that they say are long overdue, gun-policy experts say California may be limited in what it can do since guns cross state lines and often are stolen and used in crimes.

“The alarm bells are blazing,” state Sen. Robert Hertzberg said at a news conference, blocks from the site of Sunday’s carnage. “We could not have a clearer call for action on gun violence.”

Authorities said six people were killed and at least a dozen injured early Sunday after multiple shooters fired over 100 bullets in a bustling downtown area. At least three people have been arrested so far in connection with the shooting, Sacramento police said.

Image: FILE PHOTO: Shooting near the Golden 1 Center arena in Sacramento
A police evidence technician photographs the crime scene after a shooting in Sacramento, Calif., early Sunday.Fred Greaves / Reuters

The incident comes a month after another mass murder shocked the city. On Feb. 28, a man gunned down his three daughters and their chaperone before killing himself during a supervised visit at a church.

The two high-profile killings called into focus the roughly 100 gun laws that California has in place to reduce firearm deaths. They also highlighted the issues lawmakers face when they attempt to end mass shootings, the "most stubborn problem to solve" in America, where even the strictest gun laws are considered weak compared to the rest of the world, according to Adam Winkler, a UCLA constitutional law professor.

“It’s a little like putting a stop sign on one street in the middle of the Wild West, and then there’s still a car accident,” said Winkler, who is also the author of "Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America."

When compared to the rest of the nation, California has the strongest gun laws, according to a state-by-state analysis of policies by the nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety. Of its many restrictions, California requires background checks for handgun purchases, permits for anyone who wants to carry a concealed firearm in public, and childproofing features on new handgun models sold in the state. It has also banned purchases of certain assault-style weapons.

Yet, out of the five mass murders in the U.S. so far this year, three were in California, according to the Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks such incidents. The nonprofit defines a mass murder as one in which at least four people other than the shooter are killed.

Gun-policy experts say there are many reasons California is still plagued by gun violence. For one, the state is at the mercy of bordering states that have weaker gun laws, according to Cassandra Crifasi, deputy director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions.

“Our borders are porous,” Crifasi said. “And, unfortunately, bullets don’t respect boundaries.”

From 2016 to 2020, most of the 51,000 guns that were purchased in another state and then used in a crime and recovered in California had come from Arizona, according to Everytown, which analyzed federal gun trace data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Of those nearly 51,000 guns that crossed state lines into California, 78 percent originated in states with no background check law.

“California is doing its best in a nation that has really taken two different ways of approaching this issue in one country,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action.

Many details surrounding the latest mass shooting in Sacramento are still unknown, including the total number of shooters and the weapons used. On Wednesday, police said at least five people fired guns during the mayhem. The gunfire was exchanged between at least two groups of men and was fueled by gang violence, authorities said.

At least one handgun that was found at the scene was determined to have been stolen and converted into a weapon capable of automatic gunfire, police said. It’s unclear where the gun was stolen from. Another handgun was seized during a search warrant.

All three people arrested so far are facing charges of possession of a firearm by a prohibited person, according to police.

“No one thing could prevent any given shooting,” Crifasi said, adding that stolen guns are fueling the problem.

One of the proposed measures would allow people to sue anyone who manufactures or sells illegal weapons, including assault weapons and homemade, untraceable firearms known as ghost guns. Sponsored by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, the bill is modeled on the structure of Texas’s abortion law, and it advanced in a committee vote Tuesday.

“We have to use every tool at our disposal — every creative tool or imaginative tool that we can use to get guns out of our neighborhoods,” said Hertzberg, a Democrat like Newsom, adding that lawmakers will introduce 100 more pieces of legislation if that's what it takes to curb gun violence in the state.

Another pending bill would allow people to sue manufacturers and sellers of firearms for the harm caused by their product, despite a federal law that largely shields firearm and ammunition manufacturers and sellers from liability when their products are used in crimes.

It's unclear if the more contentious measures would survive legal tests if passed by the state Legislature, but Assembly Member Mike Gipson echoed sentiments shared by his colleagues that it's worth every attempt amid a surge in shootings.

“We have to try,” Gipson said. “Nothing is not an option.”