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California’s gun-related homicide rate up, reversing years of decline

Phillip Reese and Ryan Lillis

Sacramento Bee

October 6, 2017

Seven teenagers were shot to death in Sacramento County last year, including a young man found dead in a relative’s garage and a popular Sacramento High School football player allegedly shot by a family friend. In Los Angeles, police tackled a wave of gang-related shootings and the number of homicides rose for the third straight year in 2016. Murders went up significantly in San Diego, San Jose and San Bernardino.

More people were killed with guns in California last year than in any other year since 2008, new state figures show.

Killers used guns in 1,368 California homicides in 2016, up by about 200 homicides from 2014, when killings fell to a historic low, according to the California Department of Justice. The firearm homicide rate, which adjusts for population changes, increased by 15 percent from 2014 to 2016.

Guns were used in 72 percent of California homicides last year, while the number of homicides using other weapons fell slightly from 2015 to 2016, the state figures show. California’s gun homicide spike mirrored the nationwide trend. More than 11,000 people across the country were murdered with firearms last year, a 35 percent increase over 2014.

California saw a bump in overall violent crime last year. But that trend was not on display locally. In the city of Sacramento, homicides decreased slightly in 2016 and a firearm was used in fewer than 60 percent of the homicides, a rate far below the state average, said Sgt. Bryce Heinlein, a Sacramento Police Department spokesman.

Sacramento police attribute this success to new technology. The department implemented a ShotSpotter program in Del Paso Heights in 2015 that uses microphones to detect gunfire, allowing officers to quickly respond when a gun is used. The city expanded the technology into south Sacramento in 2016 and is also planning to use it in Oak Park.

The rise in gun-related homicides in California comes as gun sales reach new heights statewide and in the nation. California gun dealers processed 1.3 million gun sales last year, up by 450,000 from 2015.

“Certainly since the Sandy Hook (school shooting in 2012), there has been a large number of gun sales and I think that the fear that there may be some gun control that might restrict gun buying has hugely made a difference in gun sales,” said Jennie Singer, an associate professor in the division of criminal justice at California State University, Sacramento. “The more guns that are simply available, physically on the streets and in the community, the more gun violence there will be.”

Still, much of the increase in homicides came in large cities where gun sales per capita are low. Most gun-related crimes are committed by criminals using stolen or borrowed guns, according to several independent and government research studies.

The state Department of Justice did not release county-level firearm homicide rates for 2016. But Sacramento County saw its gun-related homicide rate rise to the highest level in nearly a decade in 2015, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sacramento County homicides using all types of weapons declined slightly last year.

Criminologists caution about reading too much into a few years of homicide increases, especially after decades of declines. Still, some law enforcement officials have cited Proposition 47, which passed in 2014 and reduced many nonviolent property and drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, as a reason for the rise.

Most gun-related deaths in California aren’t homicides – they are suicides. The gun-related suicide rate has also risen in California during recent years, according to the CDC.

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