California report credits gun laws for drop in killings; rates differ sharply across Bay Area counties

California report credits gun laws for drop in killings; rates differ sharply across Bay Area counties

Firearm deaths have fallen sharply in California over the last 30 years compared with the rest of the country, a new state Department of Justice study has found, but rates vary dramatically across counties in the Bay Area and throughout the state.

The Golden State had the third-highest firearm-homicide rate in the country 30 years ago, 50% above the national average, but now has a rate 33% below the rest of the country, according to the first report of DOJ’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention, released Tuesday.

“While California is not immune to this disease, thanks to our nation-leading, commonsense gun laws and prevention policies, we’ve made substantial progress,” said Attorney General Rob Bonta in the report by the office he established in September.

But the numbers also show progress has been uneven across the state, with substantial disparities in gun homicide rates in neighboring counties with similar demographics. In the Bay Area, for example, Alameda County’s rate is almost five times Santa Clara County’s.

The report’s release comes as Gov. Gavin Newsom pushes for more gun laws in a state that already leads the U.S. in firearm restrictions — some of which are getting pushback from the courts. He is also pushing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would embed restrictions that courts have questioned on Second Amendment grounds.

The report also coincides with a 10-year analysis by gun-violence prevention group Hope and Heal Fund. The group’s California Gun Homicides Dashboard is aimed at raising awareness of firearm dangers. It too noted that California now has a significantly lower rate of firearm deaths than the U.S. as a whole but that the state has seen an increase in recent years, particularly during the pandemic, and that rural counties are disproportionately affected.

Among the findings in the Office of Gun Violence Prevention report, based on U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality data from 1993-2022 and California Department of Public Health firearm homicide rates for 2016-2021:

U.S. overall firearm mortality rates are back where they started 30 years ago at about 15 per 100,000 after dropping to about 10 per 100,000 around 2004.
California’s rate, nearly 19 per 100,000 three decades ago, fell below the U.S. rate in the late 1990s and now sits at about 9 per 100,000.
California’s firearm suicide rate, about the same as the U.S. rate 30 years ago of 7.5 per 100,000, has fallen to about 4 per 100,000 since the early 2000s, about half the current U.S. rate.
California’s firearm homicide rate, nearly 10 per 100,000 30 years ago, is half that today at 4.3 per 100,000, below the 6.5 per 100,000 U.S. rate, which is similar to what it was three decades ago.
The gun homicide rate for youth under age 25 has fallen sharply in California in the last 30 years, while the U.S. rate is down only slightly. California’s rate has fallen below those in Texas and Florida, two large states with looser gun laws.
Gun homicide rates in California varied considerably by county, with Kern at more than 9 and San Luis Obispo at less than 1 per 100,000. Alameda County’s rate was more than 5 per 100,000, topping Los Angeles at just under 5. Contra Costa’s rate was about 4.5, San Francisco’s a little over 3, San Mateo and Santa Clara around 1.5, and Marin and Sonoma just over 1.

The report didn’t offer an explanation for what it called “considerable disparities in gun homicide rates between different communities in California, both between and within counties, cites, and neighborhoods,” but it noted that the five highest rates are in the state’s farm belt counties — Kern, San Joaquin, Fresno, Monterey and Solano.

It also noted higher gun homicide rates among youths in conservative Texas and Florida than in California, but within the Golden State there don’t seem to be clear connections to political climate.

Of the California counties the report listed with the highest gun homicide rates (it didn’t include those with fewer than 11 total gun homicides), only Kern went for Republican Donald Trump in the 2020 election, while the rest favored Democrat Joe Biden. Among those with the lowest rates, Placer and El Dorado counties went for Trump and San Luis Obispo, Marin and Sonoma for Biden.

Median income, however, was lower in the counties with the higher gun homicide rates. Of the five highest, all but Solano had a median annual income below $40,000, while all those with the lowest rates had median incomes above $40,000.

The report did touch on the impact of looser gun laws in neighboring states: Just over half of the traceable firearms used in crimes in California were tracked to dealers in other states, with a majority linked to Arizona, Nevada and Texas. Arizona by contrast traced 16% of traceable crime guns to out-of-state dealers.

Gun-rights advocates had no immediate comment on the Office of Gun Violence Prevention report.

Kris Brown, president of gun-violence prevention group Brady, said the report provides valuable information needed to help solve a stubborn problem.

“Solving a problem as complex as gun violence requires nuanced solutions, and our approaches only stand to benefit from more data,” Brown said. “This report, highlighting both successes and challenges, is a massive stride towards progress in this fight.”