A mass shooting in San Bernardino has once again inflamed debate about gun control laws. Gov. Jerry Brown was asked about the tragedy when he arrived in France last week for a United Nations climate change conference.
The statement: “California has the toughest gun control laws of any state,” Brown said. “And Nevada and Arizona are wide open, so that’s a gigantic back door through which any terrorist can walk.”
Analysis: While he does not directly attribute the shootings to gun laws in other states, Brown’s statement creates an association between the laws and the San Bernardino tragedy, which is somewhat misleading. Also, while there is a connection between a state’s gun laws and gun exports, studies tracking the flow of firearms across state lines do not show an explicit link to terrorists.
Authorities have said the four guns used in the San Bernardino assault were purchased legally in California. In this case, laws in neighboring states had no bearing on how the assailants obtained their weapons.
Brown’s underlying contention is that Arizona and Nevada have less stringent laws than California, and that their permissiveness makes it easier for terrorists to inflict violence of the kind seen in San Bernardino.
The first point is accurate. Rankings by advocacy groups consistently rank California’s laws among the nation’s strictest and Arizona and Nevada among the most lenient.
A 2015 analysis from the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, for instance, concluded that California’s gun laws are the toughest in the country and placed Arizona and Nevada among the 10 least restrictive.
California regularly institutes tighter controls on guns, such as a 2015 law forbidding concealed handguns on college campuses and a 2014 measure allowing people to obtain restraining orders barring troubled relatives from owning guns.
According to the National Rifle Association, California requires registration for rifles, shotguns and handguns. Nevada and Arizona do not. Unlike California, Nevada does not require a permit to purchase firearms.
The second part of Brown’s statement contemplates guns and violence, specifically terrorists, flowing across state borders.
Reports from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that, in 2013 and 2014, Arizona and Nevada accounted for the first and second highest number, respectively, of out-of-state guns recovered at California crime scenes.
A 2010 study from the group Mayors Against Illegal Guns suggested a relationship between the export of crime-related firearms and the relative strength of gun laws. The study found the gun export rates in 2009 for Arizona and Nevada were well above the national average while California’s was well below. It found California had enacted almost every measure on a list that included requiring background checks and restricting possession, whereas Arizona and Nevada had not enacted any.
None of those reports explicitly links out-of-state guns to acts of terrorism, as Brown suggested, however, and the San Bernardino case establishes that California’s gun laws still allow would-be terrorists to obtain firearms legally.