By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Truth be told I am not a huge backer of tough gun laws. I tend to favor gun control laws that treat guns more along the lines of driver’s license—public safety focused, restrictions of who can lawfully possess and own weapons, screening and background checks and the like.
Moreover, like many in the justice reform circles, I am wary of gun laws that basically act to put people of color into cages but allow whites to open carry.
I am skeptical that an armed society is a polite society. I think we have seen too many cases in the last year alone where the presence of weapons tends to lead to more problems than it solves.
Finally, I believe that our public policy in general should be data-driven. That’s why I was fascinated by a recent column by Dan Walters.
Writing in CalMatters veteran columnist Dan Walters declares that “California’s gun restrictions are a failure.”
He writes, “Inevitably, last weekend’s horrendous fusillade of bullets on a downtown Sacramento street that left six people dead and at least a dozen wounded generated demands for new gun controls in state that already has the nation’s most restrictive firearms laws.”
He added, “However, if anything, what happened just two blocks from the state Capitol underscores the folly of believing that ‘gun violence’ can be meaningfully reduced by trying to choke off the supply of firearms—any more than the prohibition of liquor or the war on drugs succeeded.”
He asks, “So why, if California’s much-vaunted gun control laws have failed to choke off the supply of legal and illegal weapons, do politicians continue to claim that enacting even more will have an effect?”
He argues, “Some may believe it, the evidence notwithstanding, while others want to appear to be doing something about a problem because they don’t have any other answers. And those who propose and enact new gun laws are often woefully ignorant about guns or even existing laws.”
My problem here is the data that Walters uses to support his argument.
He argues, “Californians already own more than 20 million rifles, shotguns and handguns and are buying hundreds of thousands more each year.” He adds, “Nor have these laws prevented the lawless from obtaining weapons via theft, smuggling from other states or the illicit manufacture of untraceable ‘ghost guns.’ Indeed, state restrictions have made the black market even more lucrative, mirroring the side effects of Prohibition and the decades-long drug war.”
While that’s a fair point and we have seen everyone from President Biden to Attorney General Rob Bonta to SF DA Chesa Boudin target “ghost guns,” is the availability of guns really the bottom line data point for a policy working?
In my view, the proof of the pudding isn’t whether guns exists, but what is happening with the murder rate—the worst case scenario for the wrong people having and possessing and using firearms.
To put it simply, by looking at the number of guns, Walters conveniently ignores the murder rate.
The national average is 5.01 homicide deaths per 100,000. California is below the national average at 4.6. That’s 23rd best. But that’s not the end of the story. California ranks 8th best in the nation for firearm death rate.
A telling story here—the states with the highest death rates by firearm are all red states with very lenient gun laws: Alaska, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Montana, Missouri, etc.
On the other hand, the states with higher firearm death rates – all blue states with more restrictive gun laws.
Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Hawaii, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Minnesota.
But Dan Walters apparently never bothers to look at murders or firearm deaths as a key measure as to whether the state’s gun laws work. That’s perhaps because, once you do look at this data, his entire column goes up in smoke.
This is a problem across the board. It’s not states like New York and California, that have the highest murder rate—it’s states like Mississippi, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina and Arkansas, all of which are dominated by Republicans and have very permissive gun laws.
According to a recent study, Mississippi’s murder rate was 400% higher than New York’s and 250% higher than California’s. A key part of that is guns, and California and New York have some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
Another study, this one by Everytown for Gun Safety shows a strong correlation between states with stronger gun laws and those with lower rates of deaths by shootings.
Once again, California, determined to have the strongest gun laws, was among the states with the lowest rates of death by gun violence.
Hawaii, which had the second-strongest gun laws, had the lowest death rate.
Conversely, Mississippi, deemed to have the weakest gun laws, had the highest rate of gun deaths.
“While each of the top 14 states in the gun law rankings has all five of these policies in place, none of the bottom 14 states maintains any of these critical protections,” the study said.
Dan Walters seems to have conveniently skipped over this data.
“When we compare the states head-to-head on the top 50 gun safety policies, a clear pattern emerges,” the study says. “States with strong laws see less gun violence.”
It is easy after a tragically like what happened in Sacramento to say gun laws aren’t working, but the data say otherwise.