Judging by the measurement that matters most, California’s gun laws have been effective. Thirty years ago, the state’s gun homicide rate was the third highest in the nation, 50% higher than the national average. Last year, thanks to such sensible policies as a ban on assault weapons and universal background checks, California recorded the seventh-lowest gun death rate nationwide, 43% lower than the U.S. average.
On a relative scale, California’s progress is very encouraging. But on a human scale, the state’s gun toll remains outrageous. More than 3,000 Californians’ lives were lost to gunfire last year, about half of them by homicide.
Ranked the nation’s top state for firearm safety by the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, California continues to lead the nation in enacting commonsense gun regulations even as it navigates the U.S. Supreme Court’s rapidly declining tolerance for firearm restrictions. But to bring down the human toll further, the state must seriously invest in community-based programs that can break the cycle of violence in its most gun-plagued neighborhoods.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has an opportunity to make such an investment at a historic scale. He can do so by signing a bill to enact the nation’s first state excise tax on retail sales of guns and ammunition. Passed by the Legislature this month after a series of failed attempts, the 11% tax would raise an estimated $159 million a year to prevent gun violence.
The largest share of that revenue would be directed to street-level violence intervention programs. The tax would also enable investments in school safety and programs to take guns away from people prohibited from owning them.
The intervention programs disrupt street violence by working with people at high risk, including incarcerated youths, gang members and potential recruits, and people hospitalized with gunshot wounds. They provide conflict mediation, peer support, mentorship, trauma counseling and even relocation assistance to remove people from dangerous circumstances.
These programs employ proven, evidence-based strategies in communities where intervention saves lives. Although gun violence is epidemic across the country, it is particularly devastating in Black and Latino communities. Half of California’s gun homicide victims last year were Latino, and 31% were Black. Black parents are more likely to lose their young sons to gun homicide than to every other cause of death combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It takes armies of homegrown peacemakers at the community level to steer people away from social networks in which gun violence is embedded and break this horrific cycle. The Urban Peace Institute’s Los Angeles Violence Intervention Coalition, for instance, comprises 20 front-line Black- and brown-led peacemaker organizations that need more investment in community-based safety.
Sustaining these public safety initiatives in cities across the state takes predictable, continuing funding. Recognizing this, Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore has backed this legislation, citing a sharp decline in firearm-related homicides since violence intervention programs were implemented.
A tax on the manufacturers and sellers of guns and ammunition is a logical source of funding for violence prevention. California has long levied excise taxes on products that do harm, among them alcohol, tobacco and, most recently, marijuana. And there is no doubt that guns cause harm: In California, someone is killed with a gun every three hours.
A federal excise tax on guns to fund wildlife preservation was supported by the National Rifle Assn. and has been in place for more than a century. That’s all the more noteworthy given that the Supreme Court has ruled that modern gun laws must be grounded in historical practice. If we can have a federal tax on guns dedicated to conserving wildlife, a state tax dedicated to reducing human carnage is eminently reasonable.
Like most elected officials, Newsom is appropriately reluctant to raise taxes. But the governor has courageously led on gun safety regulation, even proposing an amendment that would enshrine basic gun safety principles in the U.S. Constitution. Signing this bill would be in keeping with that leadership.
Newsom knows that the fundamental point of California’s sensible gun regulations is to reduce violence and save lives. This legislation will assuredly do that.
Paul Carrillo is the vice president of the Giffords Center for Violence Intervention and a co-founder of Southern California Crossroads, a nonprofit violence prevention and intervention organization.