Given Congress’ inability to forge a consensus on how to counter gun violence, states have been left to go at it alone. That’s worked better in some places than others. California, for instance, has some of the strongest gun control laws in the country, and legislators continue to shore up weak points that emerge in the complicated and at times confusing matrix of statutes and regulations.
But those efforts, by definition, stop at the state borders, and we saw that play out in tragic ways last month. Santino William Legan, who had lived in both Gilroy and remote Walker Lake, Nev., bought a combat-style rifle in Nevada that he would not have been able to legally buy and own in California, then used it less than three weeks later to attack the Gilroy Garlic Festival, killing three people and injuring 13.
Sadly, the presence of guns legally bought elsewhere then ferried to California is not that unusual. In fact, about a third of firearms collected by California police — most of them found at crime scenes, taken from criminals or discovered abandoned — that the federal government could trace had been last sold by a dealer outside of California. Nearly 2,200 were sold in Arizona, and 1,554 were sold in Nevada.
Further, a 2017 UC Berkeley study found that violent crime increased for two weeks in parts of California within easy drive of gun shows in Nevada, where firearms can be sold without a background check (by contrast, nearly all transfers in California must involve a background check). And it’s not just here. Six out of 10 guns confiscated in connection with crimes in Chicago, which has strict gun laws, come from out of state. In New York City, 9 of 10 guns do so.
Some members of the California state Legislature hope to address at least some of the problems. More than two dozen legislators signed a letter to their counterparts in Nevada asking for a meeting this fall to discuss common-sense policies Nevada might enact that could reduce public safety risks here. In particular, the state lawmakers suggested banning combat-style firearms and large-capacity magazines and barring people under age 21 from buying firearms — laws already on the books in California.
We must note that as soon as Legan crossed into California with his combat-style rifles and magazines with capacities of 40 and 75 rounds, he broke California law. In fact, one of the routine arguments the gun lobby makes is that adopting gun controls will do nothing to stop criminals from having guns. But by that logic, we don’t need laws against bank robbery, either, given that people will rob banks anyway. Gun laws do make a difference. Studies have shown a distinct correlation between rates of gun violence, including suicides, and the relative strength of gun laws controlling access to firearms. Gun laws work.
With Democrats controlling Nevada’s Legislature and governorship, and with emotions still raw from the 2017 massacre of 58 people at a country music concert near Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay hotel, the state has shown a new openness to gun control. This year it has enacted laws allowing families to petition a judge to seize firearms from relatives they believe pose a risk to themselves or others, banning bump stocks (also the subject of a recent federal ban) that allow a gunman to effectively make a semiautomatic rifle fire automatically, and requiring firearms to be stored safely and out of the reach of children.
Will Nevada get even tougher? Who knows? But it certainly doesn’t hurt to ask. In fact, California policymakers should expand their outreach to other neighboring states and try to create something of a regional compact to put common-sense gun laws in place throughout the West. Resistance will be stiff in gun-friendly states like Arizona and Utah, to be sure, but no political battle can be won if it never gets started.
In the void left by a barely functioning Congress and a retrograde administration, California has already led the nation in other crucial areas, including climate change, motor vehicle mileage standards and criminal justice reform. It should try to do so with sensible gun laws as well. Even if the effort fails, it is a step worth taking.