Essential Politics: Gun deaths dropped in California as they rose in Texas: Gun control seems to work

Beto O'Rourke interrupts Gov. Greg Abbott's news conference in Uvalde, Texas.
Beto O’Rourke, the Democrat running against Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, interrupts the governor’s news conference in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday, accusing him of inaction on gun control.
(Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated Press)

Time was — not that long ago — that after a mass shooting, gun rights advocates would nod to the possibility of compromise before waiting for memories to fade and opposing any new legislation to regulate firearms.

This time, they skipped the preliminaries and jumped directly to opposition.

“The most effective tool for keeping kids safe is armed law enforcement on the campus,” Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz said to MSNBC a few hours after a shooter killed at least 21 people in Uvalde, Texas. “Inevitably, when there’s a murder of this kind, you see politicians try to politicize it. You see Democrats and a lot of folks in the media whose immediate solution is to try to restrict the constitutional rights of law-abiding citizens. That doesn’t work.”

The speed of that negative reaction provides the latest example of how, on one issue after another, the gap between blue America and red America has widened so much that even the idea of national agreement appears far-fetched. Many political figures no longer bother pretending to look for it.

Broad agreement on some steps

And yet, significant agreement does exist.

Poll after poll has shown for years that large majorities of the public agree on at least some, limited steps to further regulate firearms.

A survey last year by the Pew Research Center, for example, showed that by 87% to 12%, Americans supported “preventing people with mental illnesses from purchasing guns.” By 81% to 18% they backed “making private gun sales and sales at gun shows subject to background checks.” And by a smaller but still healthy 64% to 36% they favored “banning high-capacity ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.”


The gunman in Uvalde appears to have carried seven 30-round magazines, authorities in Texas have said.

So why, in the face of such large majorities, does Congress repeatedly do nothing?

One powerful factor is the belief among many Americans that nothing lawmakers do will help the problem.

Asked in that same Pew survey if mass shootings would decline if guns were harder to obtain, about half of Americans said they would go down, but 42% said it would make no difference. Other surveys have found much the same feeling among a large swath of Americans.

The argument about futility is one that opponents of change quickly turn to after a catastrophe. It’s a powerful rhetorical weapon against action.

Esmeralda Bravo, 63, cries while holding a photo of her granddaughter, Nevaeh, during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas.
Esmeralda Bravo, 63, holds a photo of her granddaughter, Nevaeh, one of the Robb Elementary School shooting victims, during a prayer vigil in Uvalde, Texas, on Wednesday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“It wouldn’t prevent these shootings,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said on CNN on Wednesday when asked about banning the sort of semiautomatic weapons used by the killer in Uvalde and by a gunman who killed 10 at a Buffalo, N.Y., supermarket 10 days earlier. “The truth of the matter is these people are going to commit these horrifying crimes — whether they have to use another weapon to do it, they’re going to figure out a way to do it.”


Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott made a similar claim at his news conference on Wednesday: “People who think that, ‘well, maybe we can just implement tougher gun laws, it’s gonna solve it’ — Chicago and L.A. and New York disprove that thesis.”

The facts powerfully suggest that’s not true.

Go back roughly 15 years: In 2005, California had almost the same rate of deaths from guns as Florida or Texas. California had 9.5 firearms deaths per 100,000 people that year, Florida had 10 and Texas 11, according to data from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Since then, California repeatedly has tightened its gun laws, while Florida and Texas have moved in the opposite direction.

California’s rate of gun deaths has declined by 10% since 2005, even as the national rate has climbed in recent years. And Texas and Florida? Their rates of gun deaths have climbed 28% and 37% respectively. California now has one of the 10 lowest rates of gun deaths in the nation. Texas and Florida are headed in the wrong direction.

Obviously, factors beyond a state’s laws can affect the rate of firearms deaths. The national health statistics take into account differences in the age distribution of state populations, but they don’t control for every factor that might affect gun deaths.


Equally clearly, no law stops all shootings.

California’s strict laws didn’t stop the shooting at a Taiwanese church in Laguna Woods earlier this month, and there’s no question that Chicago suffers from a large number of gun-related homicides despite strict gun control laws in Illinois. A large percentage of the guns used in those crimes come across the border from neighboring states with loose gun laws, research has shown.

The overall pattern is clear, nonetheless, and it reinforces the lesson from other countries, including Canada, Britain and Australia, which have tightened gun laws after horrific mass shootings: The states with America’s lowest rates of gun-related deaths all have strict gun laws; in states that allow easy availability of guns, more people die from them.

Fear of futility isn’t the only barrier to passage of national gun legislation.

Hardcore opponents of gun regulation have become more entrenched in their positions over the last decade.

Mostly conservative and Republican and especially prevalent in rural parts of the U.S., staunch opponents of any new legislation restricting firearms generally don’t see gun violence as a major problem but do see the weapons as a major part of their identity. In the Pew survey last year, just 18% of Republicans rated gun violence as one of the top problems facing the country, compared with 73% of Democrats. Other surveys have found much the same.

Strong opponents of gun control turn out in large numbers in Republican primaries, and they make any vote in favor of new restrictions politically toxic for Republican officeholders. In American politics today, where most congressional districts are gerrymandered to be safe for one party and only a few states swing back and forth politically, primaries matter far more to most lawmakers than do general elections.

Even in general elections, gun issues aren’t the top priority for most voters. Background checks and similar measures have wide support, but not necessarily urgent support.


Finally, in an era defined by “negative partisanship” — suspicion and fear of the other side — it’s easy to convince voters that a modest gun control proposal is just an opening wedge designed to lead to something more dramatic.

That leads to a common pattern when gun measures appear on ballots: They do less well than polling would suggest.

The same thing happens to measures in Congress. Nine years ago, for example, supporters of gun control made their last big push for legislation, after the slayings of 26 people, including 20 children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Then, as now, polls showed strong support for requiring background checks for sales that currently evade them. But support for the legislation was sharply lower than support for the general idea, Pew found.

Almost 8 in 10 Republican gun owners favored background checks in general, they found, but when asked about the specific bill, only slightly more than 4 in 10 wanted it to pass. When asked why they backed the general idea but opposed the specific one, most of those polled cited concerns that the bill would set up a “slippery slope” to more regulation or contained provisions that would go further than advertised.

Faced with that sort of skepticism from voters, Republican senators who had flirted with supporting the bill mostly walked away, and it failed.


Then-Vice President Joe Biden led the unsuccessful effort to pass that bill. Nearly a decade later, the political factors impeding action have only grown more powerful.

Texas school shooting

The recent string of devastating shootings has renewed calls for tighter gun restrictions. But as Kevin Rector reported, a loosening of gun laws is almost certainly coming instead, largely because of an expected decision from the Supreme Court, which is likely to strike down a broad law in New York that doesn’t allow individuals to carry guns in public without first demonstrating a “special need” for self-defense.

For all the impassioned speeches and angry tweets, for all the memes and viral videos of gun control proponents quaking with rage, most of the energy and political intensity has been on the side of those who favor greater gun laxity, Mark Barabak wrote.

The shooting has generated a lot of questions from parents about what their own schools are doing for safety. Howard Blume looked at what California officials say about school security.

The latest from Washington

Biden marked the second anniversary of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer by signing an executive order aimed at reforming policing at the federal level. As Eli Stokols reported, Wednesday’s order falls short of what Biden had hoped to achieve through legislation. It directs all federal agencies to revise their use-of-force policies, creates a national registry of officers fired for misconduct and provides grants to incentivize state and local police departments to strengthen restrictions on chokeholds and no-knock warrants.

Sluggish response and questionable decisions by the Food and Drug Administration worsened the nation’s infant formula shortage, agency officials told lawmakers at a congressional hearing. “You’re right to be concerned, and the public should be concerned,” said FDA Commissioner Robert Califf. The agency’s response “was too slow and there were decisions that were suboptimal along the way,” Anumita Kaur reported.


Only a couple of months ago, U.S. and European officials said a renewal of the Iran nuclear deal was “imminent.” But with little progress since then, and a shifting global geopolitical scene, the top U.S. envoy for the Iran negotiations testified Wednesday that prospects for reviving the Iran deal are “at best, tenuous,” Tracy Wilkinson reported. “We do not have a deal,” the Biden administration’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Cuba will not attend next month’s Summit of the Americas, a major conference to take place in Los Angeles, after the U.S. refused to extend a proper invitation, the country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, announced Wednesday. As Wilkinson reported, the decision throws the summit, which is crucial to the U.S.’ ability to demonstrate its influence in the Western Hemisphere, into further disarray.

The latest from California

GOP Rep. Young Kim would seem to have a relatively easy path to reelection in November — the national mood favors her party, she has a lot of money and the newly drawn boundaries for her Orange County district give her more Republican constituents. But Kim is suddenly campaigning with a sense of urgency, Melanie Mason and Seema Mehta report. She’s unleashed $1.3 million in advertising, and outside allies are coming to her aid with more spending. Most of it is aimed at fending off Greg Raths, an underfunded GOP opponent who has been a staple on the political scene in Mission Viejo, the district’s largest city.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and top legislative Democrats pledged Wednesday to expedite gun legislation. Among the bills are measures that would require school officials to investigate credible threats of a mass shooting, allow private citizens to sue firearm manufacturers and distributors, and enact more than a dozen other policies intended to reduce gun violence in California, Taryn Luna and Hannah Wiley reported. “We’re going to control the controllable, the things we have control of,” Newsom said during an event at the state Capitol. “California leads this national conversation. When California moves, other states move in the same direction.”

The Los Angeles mayor’s race has seemingly devolved in recent days into a rhetorical brawl between two of the city’s richest men, Benjamin Oreskes wrote. Hollywood mogul Jeffrey Katzenberg, who supports Rep. Karen Bass, says Rick Caruso’s history of supporting Republican candidates and being registered as a Republican a decade ago disqualifies him from being mayor. That came after Variety published an interview with Caruso in which he attacked the former Walt Disney Studios chairman for “lying” about him in ads by a pro-Bass independent expenditure committee predominantly funded by Katzenberg.

The growing corruption scandal in Anaheim has cost the city’s mayor his job, endangered the city’s planned $320-million sale of Angel Stadium to the team and provided a rare, unvarnished look at how business is done behind closed doors in the city of 350,000. Read our full coverage of the FBI probe into how the city does business.

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