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Why enforcing gun laws is easier said than done for California

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

California has endured two mass shootings in three days, first the 11 killed in Monterey Park over the weekend and then those seven more yesterday in Half Moon Bay - this despite the fact that California has some of the toughest gun safety laws in the nation. NPR's Martin Kaste reports on the practical challenges the state has enforcing those laws.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: One kind of challenge is legal - for instance, the gun used in Monterey Park. Here's LA County Sheriff Robert Luna.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT LUNA: The weapon that we recovered I'm describing as a magazine-fed, semi-automatic assault pistol, not an assault rifle but an assault pistol that had an extended large-capacity magazine.

KASTE: That extended magazine - a way to fire more rounds without having to stop to reload - that's illegal in California. But in practice, police are not able to enforce the ban on possessing those magazines right now because of an ongoing lawsuit in federal court. Ari Freilich is with the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

ARI FREILICH: Large areas of California's gun safety law, which have been largely very effective in reducing gun violence in the state overall, those have been subject to litigation over and over again.

KASTE: The lawsuit over the magazines is still alive because of the U.S. Supreme Court's Bruen decision last year. That decision reined in gun control laws in New York state, setting a new standard for the whole country. The California Rifle and Pistol Association, which sued over the magazines, wouldn't speak to NPR. But in an online web post, its president celebrated Bruen as the beginning of a, quote, "long overdue Second Amendment reckoning in California," unquote. And he promised more legal challenges. Legal fights aside, there's also the basic problem of neighboring states.

STEVE LINDLEY: We have an open border, obviously.

KASTE: Steve Lindley works for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, but he comes from law enforcement. He ran California's Bureau of Firearms for nine years, a bureau that sometimes sent agents over state lines.

LINDLEY: We would attend the Big Reno Gun Show in Reno, Nev., and we would see California residents buy illegal firearms - let's say an assault weapon - put it in their car and drive, drive westbound.

KASTE: It's illegal to bring in prohibited firearms. But Lindley says agents wouldn't necessarily pull those people over as soon as they got into California.

LINDLEY: We wouldn't stop them in Nevada County because they weren't going to be prosecuted or would be prosecuted at a much lower level. We wouldn't stop them in Placer County because of the same thing. We oftentimes wait for them to get into Sacramento County, and that's when they would be stopped to be prosecuted because we felt that they would actually prosecute the case there.

KASTE: Which reveals another challenge for California's gun laws. Local support varies a lot. In some more rural jurisdictions, prosecutors are just less likely to come down hard over a gun. There's also been criticism of local police implementation of the state's Armed & Prohibited Persons System. That's a statewide list of more than 20,000 people who at some point bought guns but are no longer allowed to have them. The state can't eliminate the backlog by itself. The Bureau of Firearms is budgeted for only 75 agents, and it's not even fully staffed right now. California's attorney general, Rob Bonta, says they rely on cooperation from local police.

ROB BONTA: I've been proud to work with them in joint efforts to do Armed & Prohibited Persons System sweeps in certain areas, in, like, the Bay Area, for example, Los Angeles. And we'll keep at it.

KASTE: Bonta also acknowledges the practical realities of trying to enforce stricter gun laws when other states are more permissive.

BONTA: Other states, frankly, need to step up. The federal government needs to step up. People need to have the courage and the conviction to do what we know will save lives. The data and evidence doesn't lie.

KASTE: The evidence that California Democrats like Bonta point to is the state's gun death rate, which has dropped by half since the 1990s and is lower than the rest of the country. They also point to a study showing the state's mass shooting homicide rate as below average, though it's still higher than a few states with looser gun laws. And even as the U.S. Supreme Court tightens the screws on state gun restrictions, California is pushing ahead with new legislation, including a law that takes effect this summer, which seeks to make it easier for Californians to sue the firearm industry. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste
Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.