The flag at Desert Hot Springs’ Condor Gun Shop flew at half-staff on Friday morning. Less than two days had passed since two shooters, armed with four guns, killed 14 people and wounded 21 more at an office holiday party in San Bernardino.
The shooting, which the FBI is investigating as an “act of terrorism,” forced the nation’s attention to the city 40 miles west of Desert Hot Springs. It also prompted a flood of calls to Condor Gun Shop, an unheated cabin across from a swath of open desert at the edge of the city.
“Since (Wednesday), my phone has been ringing off the hook,” said Torrey Harris, whose family has owned the shop since 1971. “It didn’t stop ringing until 11:30 at night.”
Harris said that, after most mass shootings, longtime gun owners seek to stock up on weapons and ammunition that they think California will try to ban in reaction to the incidents of violence. The state legislature often passes a slew of gun control laws in the months after these tragedies.
But Harris said the response she saw after San Bernardino was different.
“I would say a good 40% of my calls (Wednesday) were people who have never owned a firearm in their life,” Harris said.
Gun control activists already say Wednesday’s shooting demonstrates the need for background checks for ammunition sales. But even California’s gun control laws, among the strictest in the nation, haven’t prevented seven mass shootings using legally purchased guns since 2006.
Gun rights advocates maintain that laws don’t affect criminals and only make it more difficult for people to protect themselves.
Harris believes some of those people calling her shop have adopted a similar position.
“They looked at (San Bernardino) and said, ‘You know what, we have to be able to fight back, and I’m not going to be the person cowering in the corner of a room waiting to be shot,'” she said.
Data on mass shootings is sparse, and even the definition of “mass shooting” varies widely. The FBI, for instance, defines the events as incidents where at least four people are killed, while a popular online “shooting tracker” states that a mass shooting occurs when at least four people, including the shooter, are injured by gunshots.
By the FBI’s definition, as counted by USA TODAY, there have been 22 mass shootings this year; by the Shooting Tracker’s analysis, San Bernardino was number 353 and one of two mass shootings that day.
Despite this variance, experts don’t believe mass shootings are happening more often than they did in past decades. In California and across the country, violent crimes with firearms have declined significantly since the 1980s.
At the same time, however, we’ve become more afraid.
“It was Sandy Hook that really got people’s attention and started this intense focus on (shootings),” said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist who’s written several books on mass murder, referring to the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
Since then, he said, “Even though the incidence hasn’t increased, fear has.”
A 2015 Congressional Research Service report on mass public shootings found that 2012 was a particularly brutal year — seven mass public shootings, compared to an average of four per year — and suggested that the horrific year had a lasting impact on public opinion.
“Several such mass murders in 2012, seven incidents by most counts, compounded a fear among many people that, ‘this could happen to me’,” the authors of the report wrote.
After the December 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook, support for controls on gun ownership spiked to 51% of the U.S. population —its highest level in five years, according to the Pew Research Center. Support for laws protecting the right to own guns fell from 49% to 42%.
Polls showed a return to pre-Sandy Hook opinion levels about six months later. But in comparison, a shooting that killed six people at a 2011 rally for Ariz. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords didn’t significantly impact public opinion on gun control, according to a poll conducted in the following days by the Pew Research Center. Neither did a 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people.
For some, that fear has resulted in a new desire to bear arms. Pew data suggests that, in 1999, nearly half of gun owners bought them for hunting, compared to 26% for personal protection. By Feb. 2013, those positions had almost reversed: nearly half of gun owners wanted weapons for personal protection, compared to 32% for hunting.
Condor Gun Shop owner Harris said, in the last five years, she’s begun selling firearms to more women and first-time buyers. During the last 10 years, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade group for firearms manufacturers, has also seen a steady increase in first-time and female gun owners.
About 25 to 30% of customers are first-time gun buyers, who often purchase a gun for protection. More than 30% of customers are women, NSSF spokesman Mike Bazinet said.
Harris said she’s started asking first-time gun owners what changed their minds about purchasing a firearm. More and more people tell her that they want to be responsible for their own safety.
“Just like buying car insurance, you go out and you buy it and you hope you never have to use it, but you’re really thankful if you ever get into an accident. And a lot of people who buy these firearms do the same thing,” Harris said. “It really has changed, the whole mindset of a lot of people who are buying guns now.”
But, according to San Bernardino police, Syed Rizwan Farook — one of the San Bernardino shooters — purchased his two guns legally from a federal licensed firearms dealer. Another person bought two .223-caliber rifles —a DPMS A-15 and Smith & Wesson M&P15 — legally. Only the shooters’ modification attempts to the assault weapons, to make one rifle accept 30-round magazines and one rifle fully automatic, made them illegal to possess.
So for gun control advocates, mass shootings are sirens, calling for further limits on access to guns.
In California, strict gun control
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, for example, the California state legislature passed at least 14 bills tightening restrictions on gun ownership — more gun laws than it had passed in the previous six years combined. Gov. Jerry Brown signed laws banning conversion kits for ammunition magazines, toughening mental health reporting requirements and closing a “loophole” that allowed single-shot handguns to bypass safety requirements.
In 2014, a bill cited a shooting in Isla Vista — when a University of California – Santa Barbara student fatally stabbed three people and shot and killed three others — as the reason for its necessity. That measure, now a law, allows judges to temporarily keep people from purchasing or possessing guns if family members or law enforcement think they might harm themselves or others.
While nearly 40 states have relaxed gun rules in the last two decades, California has enacted more than 50 major gun bills since 1994. The pro-gun control Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, based in San Francisco, gave California’s laws an A- in 2014, the highest grade given to any state. Guns & Ammo Magazine, with a pro-gun rights stance, ranked the state fourth-worst in the country for gun ownership.
Already, in the wake of the San Bernardino tragedy, gun control advocates are touting a 2016 ballot initiative that Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed in October. The measure proposes background checks for ammunition purchases and bans possession of high capacity magazines.
“Ammunition is what makes a firearm into a deadly weapon, and we should have background checks on firearms and ammunition,” Law Center staff attorney Ari Freilich said. “These individuals, it looks like they stockpiled 3,000 to 4,000 rounds of ammunition. They did it without having to show ID, without having to pass a background check.”
Prior to San Bernardino, California had seen seven public shootings since 2006 that claimed four or more lives (not counting those police believe were gang-related), according to USA TODAY’s “Behind the Bloodshed” tracker. In four of those shootings, the weapons shooters used were purchased legally and registered to the shooters. In two other incidents, the guns were purchased legally but registered to other people.
In only one incident, the 2013 rampage near Santa Monica College, did law enforcement say that the weapons used were illegal in California.
“Here (in California), as pretty much everywhere in the country, anybody who isn’t disqualified by virtue of them having a felony conviction can get a gun, and can get a bunch of guns, and can get guns that are quite deadly, because guns are deadly,” said Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and writer for “The Volokh Conspiracy,” a legal blog hosted by The Washington Post.
Freilich believes mass shootings with guns that have been purchased legally, like Wednesday’s in San Bernardino, emphasize the need for more stringent gun control.
“I do think (San Bernardino) highlights to legislators and to the California public that despite all that we’ve done — California has the toughest gun laws in the nation — more clearly needs to be done,” Freilich said.
Since the late 1980s, the crime rate has dropped in California and nationally by about 50%, according to the California Attorney General’s Office and the FBI.
Gun control advocates attribute that drop in California in part to gun control laws. However, some researchers, including Volokh, doubt that conclusion— pointing out that violence has dropped nationwide even though most states have loosened gun control laws and California is widely known to have the strictest laws in the nation. The percentage of homicide victims killed by firearms has remained steady in California since 1990, according to the California Attorney General’s Homicide Report.
Realistically, the battle to prevent mass tragedies with legislation may be futile, Volokh said.
“Let’s look at somebody who is a would-be mass shooter. This person has essentially decided to have the defining event of his life, and possibly the concluding event of his life, be mass murder,” Volokh said. “This is somebody who is very motivated to commit the crime, and again, we know he is motivated because he’s willing to give up his life to do that.”
Wednesday’s shooting was perpetrated by people determined to kill, Volokh said.
The shooters, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, have been identified as husband and wife, and investigators found a dozen pipe bombs and more than 4,500 rounds of ammunition in the home they were renting in Redlands.
The FBI is investigating the mass shooting as an ‘act of terrorism.’
While gun control may help reduce violence in general, criminologist James Alan Fox doesn’t think legislation will help prevent mass shootings like these.
“Gun control can do a lot in terms of impacting the kind of gun crime you see every day. Will it avert mass killings? Not really,” Fox said. “They’ll find a way to get a gun. If they can’t get one legally, which most of them can, they’ll borrow one, steal one — but they’ll get one.”
Business as usual
For Torrey Harris of Condor Gun Shop, this tragic conversation is becoming routine.
“I’ve gone through this so many times now, I know how the cycle goes,” Harris said. “There are going to be people who are yelling and screaming for more gun laws and people who are going to be yelling and screaming for less, and unfortunately, probably nothing is going to happen, which I think frustrates both sides.”
On Friday, it was business as usual at Harris’ gun shop. A customer walked in the door, hoping to buy a handgun. Harris began the legal steps of selling a gun in California, asking the customer for identification, proof of residency and his Firearm Safety Certificate. Now, he’ll have to submit to a background check.
In 10 days, he can pick up his gun.
The process of purchasing a gun in California
•Obtain a Firearm Safety Certificate by passing a knowledge test. The test, made up of 30 true-false and multiple-choice questions, is drawn from a 46-page study guide available online. Copies of the test are available in English and Spanish.
•Present the Firearm Safety Certificate, a California ID or driver’s license and a utility bill or car registration with your current address to a licensed firearms dealer.
•Choose your firearm. According to the California Department of Justice, there are currently 822 handgun models approved for sale in the state. Long guns are subject to individual regulations rather than a pre-approved list.
•Complete federal and state background check paperwork.
•Get a handling demonstration from the seller, including how to load, unload and lock the gun. The seller and buyer must both sign an affidavit saying the demonstration occurred.
•Pay for the gun and keep your receipt.
•Return in 10 days to pick up the gun, provided you passed the background check.
•At this time, buy a gun lock or show a receipt to show that you bought one in the last 30 days.
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