In California, shootings offer contrast with perception of state's model laws

Amanda Wilcox’s hallway walls are lined with photos of her three children — Laura, Caleb and Nathan — in dated wooden frames. The children in the photos are elementary school-aged.

Amanda intended to update the photos as her children grew up, but she never got around to it. Caleb, 30, is now a pilot and Nathan, 27, works in the financial services industry. But Laura, the Wilcoxes’ oldest child and only daughter, was shot and killed on Jan. 10, 2001.

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  • 13 years ago, the Wilcoxes’ oldest child Laura died in a shooting. Read more to see how the family has found meaning.
  • The gun lobby is gaining traction in CA, a state known for its gun-control laws. What’s the future in CA? #GunWars
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Laura was home for winter break during her sophomore year at Haverford College. She was working as a receptionist at the Nevada County mental health clinic near her parents’ home when she was killed. Scott Thorpe, a clinic patient, shot Laura four times through the window with a 9 mm pistol. When police found Laura’s body, she was still holding her pen.

Gun control advocates tout California as the model state for gun laws. In 2013, the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence gave California an A- based on the strength of its gun-control laws. Thirty-three states received a D+ or lower.

Current and former students of University of California at Santa Barbara try to move on after this summer’s shooting in Isla Vista.

But recent shootings like the one near Santa Barbara — in which four people died by gunfire, including the shooter, and another three people were stabbed to death — have once again incited debate on gun laws. Gun control advocates maintain that more laws need to be enacted, especially laws limiting access to guns for people with mental health problems.

Gun rights advocates contend that gun control laws infringe on law-abiding citizens’ rights and will not prevent determined criminals from committing crimes. In fact, some gun rights groups say their membership is growing in California, as is support for their cause.

Amanda and her husband, Nick, never thought violence would touch their lives. They built their spacious house on 29 acres of remote woodland in the Sierra Nevada foothills two hours north of Sacramento. Nick was an environmental scientist for the state of California and Amanda was a stay-at-home mom. They thought they had found the perfect place to raise a family. But then the Wilcoxes got the call that their 19-year-old daughter had been killed in a rampage shooting.

“Life turned upside down,” Amanda Wilcox said. “I was in shock for six months. Every single aspect of our life changed when we found out Laura was killed. And we lost the future we thought we would have with our daughter.”

Subtle reminders of Laura are scattered throughout the Wilcoxes’ home. Her bed is neatly made with a red-and-white bedspread. A porcelain ballet slipper hangs on her bedroom wall next to a watercolor of a graceful ballerina. Hanging by the door is a beaded keychain that reads “Laura.”

Ask Amanda about Laura, and she begins, without hesitation.

“Laura is 19 years old…”

Amanda and Nick now work as volunteer lobbyists for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. After Laura’s death, they found meaning in striving to reform California’s mental health and gun laws. They have been involved in enacting 36 gun control laws in California in the 13 years since Laura’s death, most notably AB 809, which requires the California Department of Justice to retain sales records for long guns, as it already does for handguns. For them the fight is about preventing shooting tragedies from affecting other families.

Landmark legislation

After the Sandy Hook school shooting, the California legislature in 2013 enacted 17 gun-related measures, most tightening firearms restrictions. Gov. Jerry Brown signed laws banning conversion kits for ammunition magazines, strengthening child access prevention requirements and toughening mental health reporting requirements. In late July, Brown signed two more bills: One closed a loophole that allowed single-shot handguns to bypass safety requirements; the other sped up the process of reporting mental health data.

But the victory for gun control advocates has been bittersweet. Brown vetoed seven additional gun control bills in 2013, including a long-sought-after ban on semi-automatic rifles with detachable magazines. In a statement after the veto, Brown said he did not sign the legislation because it included low-capacity rifles commonly used in hunting and target practice. “I don’t believe this bill’s blanket ban on semi-automatic rifles would reduce criminal activity or enhance public safety enough to warrant this infringement on gun owners’ rights,” Brown said in the statement.

“He’s willing to take incremental steps to increase gun safety, but he’s not willing to do something more comprehensive,” said Cody Jacobs, a staff attorney at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “I think he believes in an individual’s Second Amendment right and I think he believes gun ownership is or can be at least a positive thing. And he doesn’t want to discourage it.”

Gun control activists like Jacobs look to California as a “first in the nation” state. California was the first state to ban assault weapons and the first to require that all handguns sold in the state pass a safety test to be listed on a roster of guns approved for sale. California is also the only state to ban .50-caliber rifles and require microstamping, a new technology that imprints a serial number on a bullet casing, linking it to information about who purchased the firearm.

“There’s all kinds of examples like that where California’s willing to be the first to do something, and that leads to other states following suit,” said Laura Cutilletta, senior staff attorney for the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Laura Cutilletta

But gun rights activists maintain that new laws don’t solve crime and instead strip away the rights of lawful citizens.

“Really it’s not about the firearms. It’s more of a socioeconomic problem than it is firearms,” said Jake McGuigan, director of state affairs for the National Shooting Sports Foundation. “The only people that are sitting around trying to figure out, ‘Can I own this firearm? Is this legal for me to own? Can I have this? Do I need to register, do this, do that,’ and reading the laws are the people you don’t really need to be concerned with.”

And while gun control activists in California believe they have reached a middle ground, many gun rights activists believe the middle ground has already been lost.

“It’s challenging because I fully understand the desire to protect the citizenry, but it is equally as important to protect the rights of the citizenry,” said Craig DeLuz, spokesman for the California Association of Federal Firearms Licensees (CAL-FFL) and the CalGuns Foundation.

Craig DeLuz

Veronika’s story

Despite California’s strict gun control measures, tragedies still happen. The shooting near the University of California, Santa Barbara, remains vivid months after it happened. For the Weiss family, whose daughter Veronika was killed there, her death is not political and it’s not about guns.

On one day in June, a strip of pictures from a photobooth leaned against a stuffed Winnie the Pooh. In the pictures, Veronika Weiss holds a rubber chicken, smiling widely at the camera. Three of her Tri Delta sorority sisters posed with her, wearing oversized plastic glasses and fuzzy bunny ears. Veronika and her sisters held up their hands in the shape of a triangle, for the Greek letter delta of their sorority. The date on the photo is May 15. Eight days later, Veronika and another Tri Delta sorority member, Katie Cooper, were shot and killed by Elliot Rodger.

Veronika, shown here with her mother, Colleen, had graduated high school with a 4.3 grade-point average and played on the water polo, swim, softball and cross country teams. She was a freshman at the University of California, Santa Barbara, when she was shot and killed. Photo courtesy of Bob Weiss.

Veronika was 19 years old and a freshman at U.C. Santa Barbara. She was a math and statistics major with dreams of working on Wall Street as a stockbroker. She loved cars and sports. In high school, she joined the Westlake High School water polo, swim, softball and cross country teams. Despite her busy schedule, Veronika graduated high school with a 4.3 grade-point average. “She was always a really active, go-getter kind of person,” Veronika’s father, Bob Weiss, said.

Sarah Thomas, a sorority sister, remembered Veronika’s quirky, silly personality. “Veronika was the kind of person where you could never be upset around her because she’d always be cracking jokes and making light of every single situation,” she said. “She definitely brightened up a room.”

Veronika’s death shook the community of Westlake Village, the quiet neighborhood on the outskirts of Los Angeles where she grew up. The Westlake Village baseball league — an all-boys league Veronika insisted on joining — dedicated a field in her name. Veronika’s high school football team announced the team’s helmets will have a V emblazoned on them next season in her honor. Veronika’s two younger brothers, Cooper, 17, and Jackson, 15, play on the team.

“I really didn’t know Veronika was so popular and that she touched so many lives,” Bob Weiss said. “It has really helped us hold ourselves up during this period. I don’t know what we’d do without it.”

The Weiss family planted a tree with purple flowers in their front yard to remember Veronika, whose favorite color was purple. “(She) was an amazing, thoughtful, friendly, outgoing person who pretty much poured herself into everything that she did,” her father said.

Mental health

For some, the killings in Santa Barbara highlight the need to strengthen mental health prohibitions on access to guns. Five days after the shooting, Assembly Members Nancy Skinner and Das Williams introduced an amended Assembly Bill 1014. The bill aims to create a gun violence restraining order.

Under current law, a person’s firearms can be taken away if he or she has been involuntarily committed or has stood trial and been found mentally ill by a court. Under AB 1014, anyone who feels another person “poses a significant risk of personal injury to himself, herself, or another” could petition the court to remove that person’s firearms. Then the court could issue a gun violence restraining order that lets police take that person’s firearms away. The subject of the petition doesn’t have to be present at the time of the petition.

Skinner called AB 1014 a “common sense bill” for friends or family who see warning signs in people with whom they are close. She said the bill would have allowed Elliot Rodger’s mother to approach a judge and say: “Look, my son is collecting guns now. He’s buying a lot of guns, and he’s threatening to kill people. I want you to get a restraining order. I want those guns removed from him until we can figure out what to do until we can calm him down.”

Nancy Skinner

As written, AB 1014 would allow law enforcement to hold a person’s firearms for 14 days. A hearing to determine whether a yearlong firearms prohibition should be issued would have to be held within 21 days of the original petition.

Mental health reform is an area where gun control and gun rights advocates find common ground, albeit not much.

“Mental health is an area where every state still has a lot of work to do, including California,” said Cutilletta from the Law Center. “It’s an issue that is very hard to get our heads around, not just regarding firearms. We don’t have the resources to provide care for people that need mental health care.”

Gun rights advocates agree limitations should be placed on people with a history of mental health problems, but they disagree on how far those limitations should stretch. State and national gun rights groups do not support AB 1014.

“You are basically found guilty until proven innocent,” said DeLuz from the CalGuns Foundation. “That takes our entire justice system and throws it on its head.”

And for many gun rights advocates, Rodger’s actions near Santa Barbara highlight problems with mental health care, not firearms. “This is an individual that stabbed as many people to death as he shot,” DeLuz said. “He actually hit with his car twice as many people as he shot. But yet we’re not concerned about BMWs. We’re not concerned about CUTCO or Ginsu knives. We’re focusing solely on firearms.”

History of mass shootings

Many attribute California’s restrictive gun control laws to its history of mass shootings. Since 1976, California has had 17 mass shootings, 11 of which happened on an elementary school or college campus. Several prominent shootings, like the 1989 Stockton schoolyard shooting, which left six dead and 29 wounded, spurred the state Legislature to pass more gun control laws. And the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence was founded in California as a direct result of the 1993 shooting at a law firm in San Francisco that killed eight and wounded six.


Following the law firm shooting, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., brought the gun control issue to the national level. She proposed the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994. The law expired in 2004 and subsequent attempts to pass similar legislation have failed. Several states, like California, have outlawed assault weapons.

“Frankly, a lot of the reason is that California has just been more progressive than the rest of the country,” attorney Cody Jacobs from the Law Center said.

Gun control advocates point to crime data from the 1990s as an indicator of how the laws are effective. Between 1999 and 2011, California’s gun-related death rate dropped from 9.12 to 7.97 per 100,000 population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, California ranked 11th-lowest for number of gun-related deaths per 100,000, including suicides and accidents. Nonetheless, gun sales in California are at an all-time high. In 1999, gun sales totaled 513,418, and by 2012 they totaled 817,738, according to the California Department of Justice.

But a News21 analysis of similar data from the FBI shows that California still has a relatively high number of homicides by firearm. In 2010, the gun murder rate in California was 3.6 per 100,000, the 15th-highest in the nation. In comparison, Louisiana, the worst state in the nation, had a gun murder rate of 8.7 per 100,000.

Owning a gun in California

Even with its reputation as one of the nation’s most aggressive in passing gun control laws, and with an electorate that is solidly Democratic, the state is hardly monolithic on the issue. Alex Tham is a good example.

Tucked snugly into a hollow between several peaks of the Angeles National Forest is the Burro Canyon Shooting Park. A two-lane road winds through the mountains, snaking past the half-empty Morris and San Gabriel reservoirs. There is no cellphone service, and no sign of civilization in sight. This is where Tham, director of American Marksman Training Group, holds his annual family and friends open-range day.

Tham, who is about 5 feet 6 inches tall, holds up a bright blue plastic handgun. A real gun is holstered on his right hip. About 30 people stand watching him use the fake gun to demonstrate how to hold a handgun. Tham is firm about making sure everyone follows the four main gun safety rules: treat all guns as if they are always loaded, never point a gun at something you don’t want to destroy, keep your finger off the trigger until the target is in your sights, be sure of your target and what’s beyond.

After listening to the range safety talk, the attendees put in earplugs and enthusiastically approach a long table lined with handguns and long guns. Firearms instructors show the new shooters how to load and hold the gun. The loud blast of gunshots echos off the mountains. A deer walks behind the line of shooters. The wildlife has grown used to the sound.

Tham has been a gun enthusiast since he was 7 years old. His uncle introduced him to shooting with an airsoft gun and then began taking him hunting. The sport grew on Tham and he stuck with it through adulthood, finally deciding five years ago to start the American Marksmanship Training Group, a firearms training school for beginning shooters. Tham has many qualms about California’s gun laws, believing, like many gun owners, that the state’s laws are unconstitutional.

“How is it possible American citizens in other states are able to exercise certain rights while here in California we’re treated like second-class citizens?” Tham asked.

He has tried getting a concealed weapons permit in California three times and has been denied three times. In the 1980s and ‘90s, Tham said he worked as a property manager for a bank. Many of the properties he inspected or collected rent from were in low-income, high-crime neighborhoods. Often, tenants paid in cash, making Tham feel like a target. He was told by the Monterey Park Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department that they had a no-issue policy for concealed weapons permits.

A year and a half ago, Tham again applied for a concealed weapons permit with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. He was told he did not have “good cause” to need a permit and was denied. The denials frustrate Tham, and he’s skeptical that a middle ground can be found in the gun debate. He said he would consider moving to another state with looser gun laws if he didn’t have family in California that needed him.

“I feel that those who are against guns view the rest of us who are gun owners as the problem, and not criminals,” Alex said. “With that kind of attitude, it’s very difficult to compromise.”

California’s gun lobby

Many, like Tham, complain that California’s gun laws restrict them from acquiring a concealed carry permit or that other constitutional rights are being violated. Knowing their efforts in the Democrat-dominated legislature won’t be successful, gun rights lobbyists have turned to the courts.

“The courts have been more than reasonable and more than understanding when it comes to protecting the Second Amendment,” said DeLuz, the CalGuns Foundation spokesman. “When governments have overstepped their bounds, there have been many, many cases where the courts have stepped in and pointed out that they have, in fact, overstepped their bounds.”

DeLuz pointed to the recent ruling in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in which a three-judge panel found a San Diego County concealed carry permit policy was unconstitutional. The sheriff’s office required that a person show “good cause” to obtain a permit, but gun owners said they were being denied even with good cause.

In response to the ruling, other counties with similar concealed carry permit guidelines have loosened requirements. In Orange County, the sheriff’s office has said an applicant no longer has to show “good cause,” but can simply explain that a permit is needed for self-defense.

“Once the courts rule, at least we have an idea of what the lay of the land is, as opposed to relying on just the Legislature to protect our rights,” DeLuz said. “Because, quite frankly, I don’t trust them.”

According to DeLuz, the CalGuns Foundation has seen a demographic shift in its membership. Growing support from women and young gun owners in their 20s and 30s indicates to California gun rights advocates that their cause is legitimate, DeLuz said. “We’re finding that our audience is getting bigger and bigger because people are starting to see some of these things that are being proposed and they’re like, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’” he said. “So I think that our future is bright.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation has seen the demographic of gun owners change across the country, including in California. Between 2003 and 2012, female participation in target shooting increased 67.4 percent nationally, according to NSSF reports.

For the NSSF, California is too large a market to ignore despite its restrictive gun laws. In 2013, the firearms industry contributed $3.6 billion to California’s economy, according to the NSSF. California alone makes up 9.7 percent of the national market for the firearms industry. “We’ll never give up on the California market. It is a very large market,” McGuigan said. “There are still manufacturers that will produce firearms to be sold in California, and we still need to protect their interests.”

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  • Kristen Hwang headshot

    Kristen Hwang

    Kristen Hwang is the News21 Reynolds Fellow and is majoring in journalism and Earth and environmental studies at Arizona State University.

  • Emilie Eaton headshot

    Emilie Eaton

    Emilie Eaton is a News 21 Hearst Fellow and a senior journalism student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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