A man chooses a gun at the Gun Gallery in Glendale, California. (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

UPDATE: 10:24 AM Shortly after this post went live, a reader contacted us with a good question: What’s up with gun sales in San Francisco? The number of background checks has steadily dropped in the city over the past decade, but the number of checks for both handguns and long guns fell to near zero in 2010. We double-checked, and no, those numbers are not an error. The explanation: San Francisco only has one remaining licensed firearm dealer within its borders, and it was shut down for most of 2010.

California has some of the toughest gun laws in the United States. They don’t appear to be stopping people from purchasing firearms.

Despite 10-day waiting periods, expansive background checks, a limit on one handgun purchase every 30 days and a broad “assault weapons” ban, California experienced a 180 percent increase in attempted gun purchases over the last decade.

California is one of a handful of states that requires background checks for every single gun purchase. Whether a person is trying to buy a gun from a licensed firearms dealer or through a private transaction, he or she is required to submit information to the state. So, the number of background checks being processed provides a rough — but not exact — window into the number of guns being purchased here.

Source: California Department of Justice
Source: California Department of Justice

That number is going up and up. In 2003, the state Department of Justice ran a bit more than 290,000 background checks. Last year it handled almost 818,000. Steven Lindley, who heads the DOJ’s Bureau of Firearms, expects gun transactions to top 1 million, a new state record, this year.

Lindley attributes the most recent spike to concerns that state and federal gun controls will be tightened. “When you have a tragedy that happened in Connecticut, and people get fearful that the guns are going to be scarce, or there are going to be new federal laws, they run to the gun stores,” said Lindley, referring to the December 2012 Newtown school shootings that led to the recent push for more gun laws. “And gun sales go up dramatically.”

The Department of Justice has also provided five years’ worth of county-level background check data to KQED. Scroll down to view maps of how many firearms background checks were administered in each county between 2007 and 2011.





How California’s Checks Work

DROS, which stands for Dealer’s Record of Sale, is the bureaucratic name for the background check process initiated anytime someone attempts to buy a firearm in California. Gun sellers enter the potential purchaser’s personal information into a computer. Those details go to the Department of Justice, which runs it through criminal and mental health record databases.

“Obviously, if you’re a convicted felon you can’t have a firearm. If you have certain domestic violence or battery charges, you can’t have a firearm,” Lindley explained.

The list of conditions that bar a person from buying a gun in California goes on for eight pages. Most violent misdemeanors bar someone from buying guns. Restraining orders – even temporary ones – do, too.

There are also mental health barriers. People who have been admitted to a mental health facility because they were deemed a danger to themselves or others can’t buy guns for five years. If someone tells a therapist they’re planning on hurting someone else, and the therapist passes the information along to the police, that leads to a six-month ban.

Ben Van Houten is with the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which pushes for stricter controls on firearms purchases. He said that long list of restrictions is one of two factors that makes California’s background check system one of the strongest in the nation. “If you look at a state like Arizona, where as long as you haven’t been convicted of a felony, or a very narrow category of domestic violence crimes, you can buy a gun,” he said.

The second factor is more significant: Federal law requires background checks only when people buy guns from licensed dealers. “If they’re buying from a private party, then they don’t have to undergo a background check at all,” said Van Houten. “It’s what we call the private sale loophole. From the best data that we have, roughly 40 percent of gun sales in America are private sales.”

California is one of a handful of states requiring background checks for every new purchase. If you want to buy a gun privately, you still have to find a licensed gun store and use its computer to send your information to the state.

County-Level Trends

The figures in KQED’s map represent all background checks, so they include the 1 to 2 percent of sales that were blocked when the state discovered information barring someone from being able to buy a gun. The amount of checks the state ran on “long gun” purchases – we’re talking rifles, shotguns – don’t directly correspond to the number of rifles purchased, since people are allowed to buy multiple long guns at once.

California’s increase coincides with a national spike in gun sales, which, going by the FBI’s background check totals, have increased every year since 2002.

The trend puts a strain on the Department of Justice team charged with running background checks on every purchase. Steve Lindley’s staff has expanded from 12 to about 20 as gun sales have grown, but the workload is outpacing their ability to hire more employees.

In 2011 – the last year that county-level data are available for – Southern California led the way in attempted gun purchases. The Department of Justice processed about 40,000 rifle background checks in Los Angeles County, and more than 43,000 for handguns. Both of those figures were substantial increases over the county’s 2007 totals.  Orange and San Diego Counties were second and third for both handgun and rifle background checks.

In the Bay Area, more background checks are happening in Santa Clara County than anywhere else. The county saw a bit less than 16,000 handgun background checks in 2011 – a 104 percent increase from 2007 – as well as about 14,000 rifle checks.

Interestingly, San Francisco is bucking the state trend. Handgun background checks dropped by 75 percent in San Francisco County during the five-year window, from more than 1,000 in 2007 to just 280 in 2011. Checks on rifle purchases decreased by a bit less than 50 percent as well.

Lisa Pickoff-White also assisted with the production of this report.

Tough Laws Do Little to Slow California Gun Rush 14 May,2013Scott Detrow

  • brentondadams

    Every single one of those people that bought a gun in California needs to get active, write and call their reps, join the CGF and the NRA.
    The only way to beat back and repeal 80 years of arbitrary, capricious, nonsensical and unconstitutional infringements on our right to keep and carry arms is if we all stand together.
    If you thought ‘gun control’ in California was invasive and expensive and dangerous now, wait until a democrat super majority is done with it….
    Write, call, join

    • Or better yet, the 92% of America who think that the NRA and their friends are totally nuts, out of control, and run by the gun manufacturers who know that the US is the only developed nation to allow this nonsense can stand together and let our lawmakers know that the 2nd Amendment was written in a time of front loading muskets, not 9mm Glock pistols. Write, call, join!

      • Triple Lindy

        Ken; What is really sad is that you or anyone else would believe the 90% stat.

        • zzzz

          especially, CNN-branded “90%+” polls 🙂


      • JSebastian

        And the First Amendment was written in a time of printing presses and quill pens, so get off the computer!

  • The San Francisco numbers are pretty misleading. It’s probably not the case that San Franciscan are not getting guns. They’re just going out of the city to do so, since there are not many gun stores in SF.

    • Scott Detrow

      Thanks, David. We updated the story with more context about SF’s low numbers. There’s only one remaining licensed dealer within city limits.

  • james cromwell

    I think that short of jailing people it won’t do a thing as the toughest law with the most murders Chicago has shown. Look at Bobby Brown case 3 DUI’s.

    California is known for having some of the toughest DUI laws in the nation, it seems Bobby Brown has been let off easy. He was released Wednesday after serving nine hours of his 55-day jail sentence for driving under the influence.

    L.A. County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore told the media that Brown was released early due to jail overcrowding and good behavior

    That will teach him right?

  • Richard White

    The statement that “California is one of a handful of states that requires background checks for every single gun purchase,” is in error.

    A DROS for long guns (rifles and shotguns) can, and frequently does, include multiple different long guns with no limit. One could buy 20 different long guns on one DROS. This commonly happens with the transfer of a collection or when the subject of a restraining order needs to get rid of his guns in a hurry without turning them over to law enforcement.

    Also, at present and until next January, no DROS is required on long guns over 50 years old. So if you saw a Russian SKS manufactured at Tula in 1952 offered on Calguns you could conduct your transcation in the parking lot of a Target store in Oakland and be in complete compliance with California law.

  • notfishing

    If you overlaid the populations of each county over the gun sales you’d see that they are pretty consistent. Low populations,like Alpine County, have low sales. High populations like Sacramento or Los Angeles have high sales.

    All this proves what?

    . “If they’re buying from a private party, then they don’t have to undergo a background check at all,” said Van Houten. “It’s what we call the private sale loophole. From the best data that we have, roughly 40 percent of gun sales in America are private sales.” – actually purchasing all handguns and most long guns without a DROS in California is a Felony. Private Firearm sales between private people, that are not dealers, is not exempt.

    The 40% quoted by Mr Van Houten is based on an analysis of a nearly two-decade-old survey of less than 300 people that essentially asked participants whether they thought the guns they had acquired — and not necessarily purchased — came from a federally licensed dealer. And one of the authors of the report often cited as a source for the claim — Philip Cook of Duke University — told our friends at Politifact.com that he has “no idea” whether the “very old number” applies today or not. Even Vice President Joe Biden acknowledged that the statistic may not be accurate in a speech at a mayoral conference on Jan. 17.

    Just a few inconvenient truths.

  • “In spite of the evidence conveying the hazard of firearms ownership, it’s still useless to debate gun control. At best, it has resulted in a stalemate over background checks. Even gun control proponents admit this measure of accountability would not have stopped someone like Adam Lanza from carrying out the slaughter at Sandy Hook.”

    ‘Guns don’t kill people, gun owners do’



  • esmensetoo

    The important issue isn’t whether it is preventing gun purchases — background checks are not intended to do that. And limits on the type of guns purchased are not intended to limit the right to carry arms. The important issue is whether these laws are preventing the kind of mass killings that happen when the mentally unstable and violently inclined are able to too easily and too impulsively get their hands on instruments of mass murder. This story, doesn’t tell us anything about how effective these laws are at what they are intended to do — it only tells us that they haven’t done what they aren’t intended to do; prevent reasonable people from buying guns.

    • zzzz

      Let’s face it. No law can prevent a normal person from going nuts and start mass destruction, either with a gun or a can of gas. What CA legislators are trying to do is to prevent normal people from buying guns, which again, pointless.



Scott Detrow

Sacramento bureau chief Scott Detrow covers state government, politics and policy for KQED News and its statewide news program, The California Report.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor