Capitol Alert

Gilroy shooting: California’s gun laws can’t halt flow of firearms from other states

Dramatic images from devastating Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting

Here are 12 images showing the emotion and tragedy behind the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting in California.
Up Next
Here are 12 images showing the emotion and tragedy behind the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting in California.

California may have some of the strictest gun laws in America. But the mass shooting Sunday night at a food festival in Gilroy illustrates a gaping loophole, experts on gun violence say: A state’s gun laws are only as strong as those in neighboring states.

Thousands of weapons have flowed into California from states where purchasing a weapon is considerably easier, according to federal data. This, despite it being generally illegal for a Californian to purchase a firearm out of state without abiding by California’s strict gun control regulations.

“This case does highlight the problem of porous borders for gun laws,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA professor who studies Second Amendment issues. “Guns and people go across state lines very easily. ... It’s a continuing challenges for states like California that want to do more to keep Californians safe.”

Police in Gilroy said Monday that Santino William Legan, the gunman who killed three people at the Gilroy Garlic Festival, purchased his “AK-47-style” SKS rifle legally in Nevada less than three weeks ago.

California has 107 laws restricting gun ownership in some fashion, more than any other state, according to Nevada has just 21. The Nevada legislature earlier this year did pass a controversial law that requires almost all gun purchasers to undergo a background check conducted by a federally licensed firearm dealer. The law takes effect next January.

Gilroy’s police chief, Scot Smithee, said Monday morning that the shooter who killed two children and an adult at the annual festival fired into the crowd with an SKS rifle, a weapon described as comparable to an AK-47. At at a press conference later Monday, agent Robert Topper of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives said the weapon was an “AK-47 variant ... based on the original AK-47,” but said he didn’t know the specific model.

While California law generally outlaws assault rifles, an SKS can be purchased legally, so long as it hasn’t been modified to include a detachable magazine and at least one other illegal feature such as a pistol grip stock. Authorities didn’t say whether the weapon used in Gilroy was modified.

California’s top law enforcement official said the gun used in Gilroy was illegal in California.

“That weapon could not be sold in California; that weapon cannot be imported into the state of California,” said Attorney General Xavier Becerra at a press conference in San Francisco.

At the same time, California law generally prohibits anyone under 21 from buying a firearm. The Gilroy gunman, who was killed by police at the festival, was 19. The minimum age in Nevada is 18.

Experts on gun regulation said that federal law prohibits licensed gun sellers from selling weapons to out of state residents. At a Monday morning press conference, Gilroy officials didn’t say where Legan got his weapon in Nevada.

California lawmakers immediately demanded a toughening of the state’s laws. “No more thoughts and prayers,” San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting said on Twitter.

Yet those calls for legislation overlook a disparity between California’s gun laws and its neighbors’ — an issue that’s long been a point of frustration for gun control advocates.

A Sacramento Bee investigation in 2013 found scores of Californians, frustrated with their state’s gun laws, head to Nevada gun shows to take advantage of Nevada’s relatively lax gun laws and purchase firearms.

A reporter found Californians lining up at the Crossroads of the West gun show in Reno, at the city’s convention center across from the Atlantis casino hotel.

“Why are there so many people here today? Because they want to take away our gun rights,” a customer from Susanville said.

The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives show that more than half the guns recovered by law enforcement agencies in California come from out of state.

In 2016 and 2017, law enforcement recovered 80,561 guns in California. About 58 percent came from out of state. The No. 1 out-of-state source was Arizona, with 4,053 guns, followed by Nevada at 2,765.

The Fallon, Nev., store where the Gilroy gun was reportedly purchased issued an emotional apology on its Facebook page.

“Good people have been hurt and this goes against everything I believe in,” wrote Big Mikes Gun & Ammo. “I have always said we will sell to good people and have done everything we can to make sure this happens. ... I did not know this individual. He ordered the rifle off my internet page. When I did see him, he was acting happy and showed no reasons for concern.”

The interstate trade in firearms has stymied state-by-state efforts to prevent guns from flowing into states with strict gun laws.

For instance, Chicago has some of the strictest gun laws in the nation, but the majority of weapons seized in crimes there have come from out of state, according to a 2017 report issued by the city. One-fifth of firearms seized in Chicago were purchased in neighboring Indiana, whose border is just a short drive from the city. Indiana has far fewer gun regulations.

“We can’t enforce California laws in Nevada,” Becerra said. “The reach of the California law ends at our borders.”

However, the attorney general said he thinks California’s laws are preventing some shootings from occurring. “I would say it’s happening less because we have these laws,” he said.

He and other Democrats urged Congress to enact stricter laws that would reach across state lines.

“Enough is enough. Congress has a responsibility to every family torn apart by gun violence to act, and help advance a future that is finally free from this senseless violence,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco.

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena and an outspoken advocate for gun control, called on the Senate to act on the “meaningful bipartisan gun violence prevention legislation” that the House has already passed. The bill strengthens laws on background checks.

For now, even the most prominent advocates for gun control are not advocating for the drastic step of screening travelers coming into the state for illegal firearms.

“It would certainly be a lot easier and most cost efficient if more states and ultimately the federal government could just get on the same page and enact smart gun laws,” said Laura Cutilletta, managing director of the California-based Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. The center was founded following the 101 California St. shooting in San Francisco in 1993, in which a gunman killed eight people with a gun he purchased legally in Nevada.

Yet gun advocates said stricter gun laws wouldn’t solve anything.

“I don’t know how any society can regulate evil,” said Don Turner, head of the advocacy group the Nevada Firearms Coalition. “I’m pretty convinced that more and more laws aren’t the answer.”

Police have identified the man who opened fire at the Gilroy Garlic Festival July 28, 2019, as Santino William Legan, 19. Based on social media accounts, here's what we know about Legan.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee

Dale Kasler covers climate change, the environment, economics and the convoluted world of California water. He also covers major enterprise stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. He joined The Bee in 1996 from the Des Moines Register and graduated from Northwestern University.
Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.