Police officers investigate a shooting in Orange, California
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said Thursday there was a surge in firearms purchases in 2020, and he urged more efforts to reduce gun violence.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)
Civic Life

California saw record surge in handgun sales during pandemic, attorney general says

With gun violence also surging, California Attorney General Rob Bonta called on local law enforcement to step up efforts to reduce shootings, including use of a state law that allows judges to order temporary removal of firearms from people deemed a public danger.

Amid economic and political turmoil during the COVID-19 pandemic, California saw a record increase in the sale of handguns last year, and the number of long-gun purchases was higher than it has been in four years, state Attorney General Rob Bonta said Thursday.

With gun violence also surging, Bonta called on local law enforcement to step up efforts to reduce shootings, including use of a state law that allows judges to order temporary removal of firearms from people deemed a public danger.

“While violent crime rates are still well below their historical highs in the early ‘90s, the increases we’ve seen during this pandemic are unacceptable,” Bonta said. “In California and across the country, gun violence in particular continues to be a uniquely American health crisis.”

Statewide, there were 2,202 homicides reported in 2020, an increase of 31.1% over the year before, according to a separate report released Thursday by the state Department of Justice. Bonta said the vast majority of those homicides involved guns.

Nearly 1.17 million new firearms were registered in 2020 in California, with handgun sales up 65.5% from the year before. The number of long-gun purchased jumped 45.9% from 2019.

Last year, there were 686,435 new handguns sold in California, eclipsing the previous record of 546,254 in 2016.

The surge in gun purchases has been nationwide. Bonta said the FBI’s national background check system processed a record 39.7 million checks last year.

The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on California’s economy in 2020 as the state enacted restrictions on business operations and public gatherings and urged people to stay home. In addition, there was political turmoil surrounding the heated presidential election and street protests throughout the country against the excessive use of force by police officers.

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Advocates for gun owners said the record gun sales are a sign of the times.

“Of late, Americans have experienced politicians trying to shut down firearm stores, criminals being set free from prison and police departments defunded across the nation,” said Amy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the National Rifle Assn. “This all happened in the midst of a pandemic, a lockdown and widespread rioting. People felt vulnerable.”

Bonta said “the uncertainty of the global pandemic” appears to have played a part in the increase in gun sales.

The surge in gun sales is concerning to Amanda Wilcox, a leader of the gun violence prevention group Brady California, who said that “where there are more guns, there are more gun deaths.”

Wilcox, whose daughter was killed in a shooting by a stranger, said California has some of the strongest gun laws in the country, though some of them are facing court challenges, including a ban on assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines.

In releasing the report, Bonta cited a surge in gun violence in California during the last year and called on county prosecutors to make better use of gun violence restraining orders that allow family members, co-workers or law enforcement officers to petition courts to take firearms away from people who are deemed to be a danger to themselves and others.

“These laws can be a proactive tool to help prevent gun violence, but they are not being used enough,” Bonta said during a news conference.

Recent mass shootings in California include a May attack in which a gunman killed nine colleagues at a light rail yard in San Jose. Co-workers had said before the shooting that the gunman had exhibited worrying behavior.

In March, a gunman killed four people, including a child, and injured a fifth person at an Orange office complex.

At the same time, the LAPD recently reported that shootings were up nearly 67% during the first four months of this year compared with the same period in 2020, while homicides were up 26%.

Although judges in California issued a record 1,285 gun violence restraining orders last year, Bonta noted that some counties are making little use of the law adopted five years ago after another mass shooting.

Law enforcement agencies in San Diego and Orange counties sought the most restraining orders, 483 and 140 orders, respectively, while only 30 orders were issued in Los Angeles County even though it has a high level of gun violence compared with other parts of the state.

Meanwhile, Bonta tentatively weighed in favorably Thursday on a law passed by the San Jose City Council this week that implements the first requirement in the country for gun owners to carry liability insurance to cover taxpayer costs involved in gun violence.

“If it’s lawful — the liability insurance proposal — and it saves lives, then I think it’s something worth serious consideration,” Bonta said, adding that he would need more details about the proposal before making a final determination.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.