Loaded with guns

Ban assault weapons? There are nearly 6,000 in Sacramento County.

Independent reporting for this story is funded by a grant from Sacramento Emergency Foodlink.

As the nation grieves over the astounding loss of life in Newtown, Conn., lawmakers in Washington, D.C., are resurrecting talk of a national ban on assault weapons. That might be hard: Sacramento County alone is home to almost 6,000 registered assault weapons.

Today, it is illegal to purchase assault weapons in California. But residents who owned and registered them prior to 2001 have been grandfathered in past the 1999 augmentation of the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapon Controls Act of 1989.

According to the state Office of the Attorney General’s most recent records, there are 5,838 assault weapons registered to some 2,939 people in Sacramento County. Seems like a lot? Well, seven other counties have more assault weapons than we do, and these numbers don’t even speak to the countless unregistered weapons peppered throughout the state.

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence ranks California as the top state in gun-control legislation, yet FBI statistics show that one out of every seven U.S. firearm-related homicides in 2011 took place right here in the Golden State.

In response to the recent tragedy in Newtown, California state legislators are again pushing to strengthen legislation surrounding access to ammunition and gun permits for residents with mental disorders.

But as policymakers work out their gun-control solutions, local law enforcement continues to deal with gun-related incidents as best as it can.

“We’ll get calls of gunshots fired every day,” said Jason Ramos of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. “Without exception.”

According to the California attorney general’s website, Sacramento County was home to 1,491 robberies and 2,423 aggravated assaults in 2010. Some 494 of the robberies and 707 of the assaults were carried out with the assistance of a firearm.

The county is nearing 50 homicides as 2012 winds down. While data on those carried out by firearm was not readily available at the time of printing, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes that 60 percent of all homicides in the United States involved a firearm.

A majority of the county’s calls regarding gunshots fired do not result in injury or death, said Ramos, and the neighborhoods most heavily afflicted by guns are the most impoverished, where gang and youth violence are of particular concern.

One of the Sacramento County Sheriff Department’s most effective tools against gun violence has been the newly formed Impact Division. Staffed by 28 officers from local, state and federal law enforcement, this division has helped to take some 350 guns off the streets.

Of course, it is legal for California citizens passing background checks to own firearms. In 2011, California vendors put in more than 600,000 firearm-purchase requests to the Department of Justice, with more than 99 percent passing the background checks.

Gun-control proposals by state lawmakers in the wake of the Newtown shooting do not seek to outlaw any more weapons, nor do they look to decrease firearm purchases: They focus on background checks for ammunition purchases and mental-health issues.

“Right now in California, there are no restrictions on ammunition purchases,” said Greg Hayes, press representative for state Democratic Sen. Kevin de León of Los Angeles. “Anyone can buy ammunition, including criminals.”

De León has introduced legislation for background checks and one-year permits for any state residents looking to purchase ammunition. Meanwhile, state Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco is pushing to outlaw the bullet button on semi-automatic weapons in California.

Sacramento officials, meanwhile, seem to be more focused on the mental-health side of the issue, with state Sen. Ted Gaines of Roseville introducing legislation to permanently keep firearms out of the hands of the mentally ill, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg pushing the federal government to match the state’s funding to help the mentally ill.