Though overall crime in California is down from historic peaks, data show a trend that is troubling some experts: Increases in the use of firearms in homicides and aggravated assaults.
A spate of mass shootings, including killings this year at a dance hall in Monterey Park, a mushroom farm in Half Moon Bay and a Trabuco Canyon bar, highlight the problem. But the use of guns is rising in less high-profile crimes as well.
“It is particularly in the last few years that we have seen an increase in violent crime involving firearms,” said Magnus Lofstrom, policy director of criminal justice and a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.
In 2020, homicides using firearms increased by 40.6% and assaults with firearms went up by 29% from the previous year, according to a Times analysis of Department of Justice data.
The trend continued in 2021, with each category of crimes increasing 8% before dropping off by about as much in 2022, the most recent year for which data were available. But the rate for 2022 remains noticeably higher than pre-pandemic figures. Guns were used in 71.2% of homicides and 21.8% of assaults in 2022, compared with 68% and 16.9%, respectively, in 2019.
After a precipitous climb, it is “a little bit encouraging that it came back down” last year, Lofstrom said.
The last time firearms were involved in such a high percentage of violent crimes was “at the peak of our violent crime wave” in the early 1990s, Lofstrom said. Though the rate of gun use in crimes was similar, far more crimes were committed in that era, he said.
Lofstrom did not speculate as to why guns were used more often, though the increase in crime overall during the pandemic has been widely reported.
Violent crime and property crime were both up slightly year over year in 2022, according to Department of Justice data. The homicide rate dropped by about 5%, but was still up nearly 24% from 2017.
The rate of property crime was 7% lower last year than in 2017.
The percentage of crimes involving firearms varies greatly among the state’s biggest counties. Analysis from the Public Policy Institute of California show San Joaquin and Alameda counties with the highest rates of gun violence among major counties, and Orange, San Diego and San Mateo counties with the lowest.
Nearly 40% of violent crimes in San Joaquin and Alameda counties involved firearms in 2022. In Orange and San Diego counties, the rate was 14%. In Los Angeles County, the rate was relatively high at 27%.
About 90% of homicides involved guns in San Joaquin and Alameda counties, compared with 38% in San Mateo County.
In Alameda County, nearly half of the robberies involved firearms, whereas in San Diego County, 15% of robberies involved guns.
These higher rates come in the midst of a statewide push to tighten gun laws that are already among the most stringent in the country.
“California has the strongest gun safety laws in the nation and has been a trailblazer for gun safety reform for the past 30 years,” according to the Giffords Law Center, an an anti-gun-violence organization.
Just last week, Gov. Newsom signed new gun control regulations into law, which included what the governor’s office described as a “first-in-the-nation effort” to generate funds on the sale of bullets to improve school safety. “California’s gun death rate is 43% lower than the rest of the nation,” he said, in a statement.
He cited a report from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which noted that “from 1993 to 2017, California’s firearm mortality rate declined by 55% — almost four times the decrease in the rest of the nation.”
In the following five years, however, those numbers probably ticked upward, experts said, as guns were used in more violent crimes.