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Roundtable: California mass shootings

 January 27, 2023 at 12:27 PM PST

S1: California suffers from multiple recent mass shootings. We're taking a deeper look at their effects , how communities are responding and how leaders are working to prevent future tragedies. I'm Matt Hoffman and this is KPBS roundtable. Gun violence in California is again in the headlines after a series of mass shootings in our state. There's been three of them just recently. One was in Half Moon Bay where seven people were killed. Another took place in Oakland on Monday night. And the deadliest of these events took place in Southern California's Monterey Park Saturday evening. It's an area of eastern Los Angeles County with a vibrant Asian-American community. 11 people were killed at a dance studio there and several others were injured. I'm joined by Marianna Dale. She's a reporter with LAist and the public radio station KPCC. Marianna , thanks so much for joining us here.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: So you're part of a team of reporters at KPCC and L.A. that are on this developing story.

S2: One of the first stories I worked on at KPCC was the November 2019 shooting at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita , where three people died. First and foremost , we want to make sure that we have the facts right. That means vetting information to the best of our ability before publishing it or broadcasting it. And we work really hard to center the people who are affected , whether that's the victims and their loved ones or the surrounding community.

S1: And it sounds like it's an all hands on deck thing here as your daily beat is as a childhood reporter.

S2: It's impossible to completely isolate most kids from news of these events. But we wanted to give parents tools to have , you know , healthy conversations and help their kids process. And I think in a lot of ways , I also worked on the story as a community member. I live in the San Gabriel Valley. I take dance classes at a ballroom in LA and dance studio that's not that far from where the shooting happened. And so I really wanted to help people understand that this community and the culture of dance.

S1: He sort of touched on this a little bit , but with how fast the news media landscape is , you know , Twitter , Instagram , and our Web stories. Do you think that there's sort of like an added responsibility in terms of what journalists or what news organizations are putting out there as these events sometimes are unfolding in real time ? Absolutely.

S2: I mean , you know , we don't quite have the same like Hippocratic Oath as doctors where it's do no harm. But I think in a lot of ways , the the spread of inaccurate information can do harm. It can cause people panic and anxiety. It can fuel like incorrect narratives about what has happened. And so I think it's our duty not to just amplify this chaos that we're hearing about in the world , but really try to make sure that what we're bringing people is accurate and is going to help them navigate the situation the best they can and stay safe.

S1: And you also mentioned that you lived near the site of this tragedy. Can you tell us a little bit more about the area Monterey Park ? You know , if you can sort of describe this community that's located in the West San Gabriel Valley ? Yeah.

S2: So Monterey Park is a city of about 60,000 people. It's two thirds Asian. It is known as kind of the first suburban Chinatown. And that was shaped by a couple of events. One after World War two Japanese immigrants that were returning from concentration camps on the West Coast settled there. And then they also saw a large group of Taiwanese immigrants come in in the 1960s and seventies. And the community has really grown from there.

S1: And we know that this shooting happened in Monterey Park's downtown area. It was at a ballroom dance hall called Star Dance. There was one person in a story you talked with who says that the star dance studio is the center of happiness for that community.

S2: You have these championship dancers who come in and just kind of go in and out and teach private lessons. But then you also have some really incredible dancers from around the world who are teaching classes to community members and oftentimes a lot of seniors as well. They're taking waltz classes , rumba , cha cha cha , their ballroom dances. And there's karaoke on Wednesdays at Star Dance. You can go in , like for ten bucks on a Saturday. You can go on social dance all night long , and you can also rent the space. And it's becomes a center for community events in that way. I talked to groups of a mostly Thai social group that that often did that.

S1: Los Angeles County's mental health director said that tragic events like this mass shooting , they can cause the community to sort of shut down.

S2: There might be a feeling that , you know , it's a holiday. So there's this pressure to be happy because it's a lunar new Year or may be like , oh , I should be grateful that that I'm still here. And this didn't directly impact me. But when you bottle up those feelings , I think what she is saying is that you don't really process what happened and that can have consequences down the line.

S1: A theme in your recent story was Dancing Keeps US Together. One of the people you talked to mean by that.

S2: So I don't know if you've ever ballroom dance or social dance , but it is like an inherently , really social activity. Classes like the ones held at Star Dance and other studios. You don't have to come with your own partner to class. You like rotate and you are partners with everyone. And I think through those interactions you really start to build connections with people. You might see someone from a class that you took on the weekend and you say hi and you dance with them , or maybe you even dance with a stranger. And it's not weird at all. It's just like this respectful environment where people can , you know , get some exercise , de-stress from the week and just just have fun in a way that feels really wholesome in a space that is really unique , I think in the time that we live in right now.


S2: People I talked to were not going to be turned away from dancing. This is something they consider part of their life , part of their community , how they make connections. And so they're not going to stop on a very micro level. We know that Star Dance has posted on its website that it is closed and it is going to be closed until further notice. But I talked to people who said that if and when it reopened , they would want to go back. And then I think on a like a larger level , we're also perhaps going to see some more conversations about what political action can be taken right now. California already has strict gun laws and a relatively low rate of gun violence. But as journalists , I think people will be watching out for any policies proposed at the state or federal level that could stop something like this from happening again.

S1: I've been speaking with Marianna Dale. She's a childhood reporter. From LAist and KPCC. And Marianna , thanks so much for joining us.

S2: Thank you for having me.

S1: Mass shooting tragedies like the one in Monterey Park this week are not a new phenomenon for Californians. Back in 1984 , Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak covered what was then the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history. And it happened here in San Diego. More than 20 people were killed and many others injured at a McDonald's in San Ysidro. Barabak reflects on that mass shooting nearly 40 years ago in a new column this week. And Mark is here with us now. Mark , welcome to Roundtable.

S3: Hi , thanks for having me.

S1: Great to have you here. So we know that you covered the San Ysidro McDonald's shooting nearly four decades ago. Then it was the largest mass shooting ever at the time. You write that since then there's been more than 130 of them. And you say that we as a public have since learned that these types of tragic events can happen anywhere at any time.

S3: It happened in temples , and it happened at schools. It happened in high schools , elementary schools. I mean , really , as I said in the column. It's always easier to name the places where we haven't had a mass shooting. And really , if you name it , just about any sort of place where people gather a concert at a supermarket. We have had mass shootings.

S1: You know , going back about 40 years ago. Mark , do you see any parallels in some of the recent mass shootings to this one that happened in San Ysidro ? Well.


S3: The fact that it was shocking , the fact that it was a horrific episode , you know , the thing that stayed with me and , you know , as you mentioned , this has been 40 plus years. So I don't remember a lot of the details. But one thing that I distinctly remember all these years later , I covered it in and then after the the initial reporting , I was assigned the responsibility of trying to reconstruct how the 21 victims had all gotten to that McDonald's to be in there at that place in that horrible moment. And I just remember after all these years later , finding this one family who was connected to this horrible series of connections through cousins , siblings , ass uncles , a substantial number of the victims are all tied to this family. And I remember sitting in our living room for hours going over with them , looking at pictures and hearing the stories of these individuals who had died so horribly. And the thing that has stayed with me all these years later was just the grace , the kindness , the equanimity. These folks showed , the desire that their loved ones would not be forgotten. But above all , 40 years later , what really sticks with me was , was was the poise and the grace that these folks showed under such horrible circumstances.


S3: I mean , I think they all each and every one of them obviously is a tragedy and a terrible thing. And they still have the capacity to shock. But I would suggest that they have become so much a part a ritual of our landscape , of our day to day lives , such a frequent occurrence that , you know , while they're shocking , I think I think perhaps not as shocking as , say , the one in San Isidro at that time. I mean , the mass shootings occurred and had occurred , but with much less frequency , much fewer and much farther between back in those days. So I think the capacity to shock might have been somewhat greater simply because they weren't as common as they are today.

S1: Going back to your recent column , you write that , you know , despite these latest mass shootings here , the fact is that the state's strong gun laws are making a difference.

S3: I think of the column I mentioned , specifically Florida and Texas , I refer to them as in a sort of competition to see which which state can be more promiscuous in the way they sort of fetishize firearms. California's moved the other direction , and statistically , it has shown that California has fewer gun deaths , has less gun violence than other states. Now , we've heard a lot of conversation in the last week since these two mass shootings occurred , people saying , well , California has really strict gun laws and we still have them. Well , yes , but California is not an island. I know there are some people who live here and some people who live out of California would love for us to be an island off by ourselves , but we're not. And , you know , when you talk about whether California gun laws are working or not work , you have to factor in that. It's very easy to go just across the border , to go to Arizona , to go to Nevada , which have much less restrictive gun laws and get. Firearms there. So I think it's , I think , a species to suggest that somehow California's laws aren't working because these things occur. What we need , if we're going to rein these sorts of episodes in and stop them , you'll never prevent them from happening. I think that's impossible. But if we're going to lessen the incidence of them , then what you need is uniform national legislation.


S3: Majority of Americans support a ban on assault type weapons. The majority of Americans support what I consider commonsense measures like not letting someone with a mental illness buy a gun. Like having universal background checks and closing what's called the gun show loophole , where you can walk into a gun show and purchase a weapon without a background check. There are limits on the capacity , you know , high capacity magazines. So there are measures well short. We're not talking about confiscation. We're talking about taking away people's guns. There are gun safety measures that have a support of the majority of the American people , some a supermajority of the American people. But we're not getting these laws passed in Congress. And honestly , I have very little faith that anything is going to change or any laws will get passed , at least in the next two years of this Congress , simply because the gun lobby in Washington regularly and routinely outmuscled gun advocates. There are lawmakers whose greatest concern on the Republican side is facing a primary and running. You know , having someone who's even more pro-gun primary them and beat them. So there's very little , sadly , I think , incentive structure in a political system for folks to support gun safety , the way our politics now operate.

S1: And in this latest column that you wrote , you quoted a political science professor , and they make the point that the public's attention on events like this are sort of short lived.

S3: You know , there's a lot of things that the media does not well , some things in the media does poorly , in my estimation. But I don't think this is a case of the media covering or not covering them. I mean , this is just this is human nature. This is a tendency for a lot of folks to be outraged in the moment and then to move on. And I'm not unsympathetic. People have bills to pay , people lives to live , people their kids , soccer or basketball or whatever activity , you know , to go to on the weekend. People live their lives. But the fact is , politically , the forces that are most successful are those who are most adamant in pushing their position , who are insistent , who have the intensity. And what we have seen time and again is that folks who care about gun rights as they describe them , who care about the Second Amendment , who oppose gun safety or gun regulations , are very adamant. They're very engaged and they are there 24 seven Whereas for a lot of folks who may be just as passionate in their abhorrence of the violence that takes place in their shock and therefore they're concerned , they're shocked , they're horrified , but then perhaps they move on until the next episode. So it really has to do with intensity. I'll quote myself. I said , there is no organism on earth. There's more responsive to heat and light than a politician. And if they feel the heat and they're only getting it from one side , then they're going to be responsive. And time and again we have seen the anti-gun safety , anti-gun regulation forces much more engaged , much more intensely involved than the other side. And they tell us that changes. We're not likely to see anything happen in Congress.

S1: Mark Barabak is a columnist with the Los Angeles Times. A lot of great insight here , Mark. Thanks so much for joining us.

S3: Thanks for having me.

S1: Though , questions remain about whether these most recent mass shootings will lead to any new federal gun legislation. One San Diego effort is receiving some praise for being a successful tool in combating potential gun violence. Alexi Koseff is a reporter from Cal Matters. He wrote about San Diego's gun Violence restraining Order unit last fall , and he joins me now to tell us more about how it's aiming to prevent future tragedies. Alexi , thanks for joining us here on roundtable.

S2: Thank you for having me on.

S1: Great to have you here again. So we're talking about red flag laws here , Alexi. That may be an unfamiliar term for some.

S2: This law has been around now for about seven years in California. It was passed in the wake of a mass shooting and killing at the UC Santa Barbara campus in 2014. And it gives law enforcement and close family members an opportunity to report somebody that they believe may be dangerous and have their guns , ammunition and other things temporarily taken away while a court assesses whether they should have a longer term restriction placed on them.


S2: And this can be all kinds of things. It's not necessarily just a mass shooting. Sometimes it's when a family member calls the police because they're worried that , you know , somebody in their household might be threatening suicide. It might be because somebody is on drugs or drunk and waiting around a gun and threatening somebody. But often the initiating event is somebody calling the police. And the police come and assess the situation and they may see that the person is posing a danger with their weapon and file this sort of emergency order to the court , which allows them to confiscate that gun and any other guns , ammunition , you know , all of that kind of stuff for up to three weeks. And during that time , they then may hand over the case to the city attorney's office , which will look into the circumstances and decide whether to pursue a longer term order. And in California , these orders can be up to five years. The most common is that they may get extended sort of a year at a time. And at the end of each year , the person whose guns have been taken away can petition the court to end the order and allow them to get their guns back.

S1: Talking about your reporting on the program here in San Diego. How did city attorney Mara Elliot come to feel that , you know , this was something that needed to be done ? You mentioned that the law's been on the books for a while here. Yeah.

S2: Yeah. I mean , it's very interesting because Mara Elliot has been rather pioneering in using this law. You know , even though it has existed for about seven years , as I said , in many jurisdictions around the state , it's still not being used at all or hardly at all. But she was very ahead of the curve in setting up this close relationship with the local law enforcement. So she has this team within the office that has eight staff members , including lawyers , investigators , paralegals. And they are in constant contact with members of the local police having cases sent over to them. They're doing trainings for law enforcement agencies in the area to help them understand how to more easily and efficiently fill out the paperwork , recognize when a law like this might be useful. And I think she you know , she said that she was sort of looking for ways to reduce gun violence. And this seemed like it was an opportunity to try and tackle that problem.

S1: And just in the city of San Diego alone , the state says that more than 30% of these warrants were done here , and that was in 2021. Can you sort of break that down for us ? Like , what does that translate to or do we know ? Is there any data about how many potential incidents of gun violence that this program may have prevented ? I don't know if that's easy to track. Right.

S2: Right. It's sort of hard to say that , you know , every case stopped some potential incidents. It may have stopped a potential incident of violence , but we don't know that violence would have happened without them intervening. That said. The proponents of this law are pretty clear that they feel that they have certainly stopped some things that would have led to tragedy. And , you know , there's fewer stories about , you know , tragic gun violence that are in the news because of their work. But in San Diego , from the end of 2017 , when this unit was created through the spring of 2021 , as I was starting my reporting , more than 1250 orders had been obtained in in just San Diego. So I think that gives you a sense. I mean , this is a program that is still relatively small but growing , and other counties and cities across the state are still slowly catching up. I think places that have been touched by gun violence in notable ways are often more forceful in using it to. For example , Santa Barbara County is one of the places where there is a higher use of this law because , you know , was the tragedy there that led to its creation. But , you know , it's worth noting that some of the biggest jurisdictions , particularly Los Angeles , this law hardly gets used. I mean , in a county of 10 million people in 2021 , there were only 54 orders , 54 gun violence restraining orders that were issued in Los Angeles County.

S1: And as we wrap up here , we know that you're always close to what's happening in Sacramento , politics wise , in the wake of these recent mass shootings.

S2: I think that's probably a result of the fact that we've just had an endless stream of mass shootings and other tragedies the last few years. I mean , there's there's never been a pause , unfortunately. One of the things that is certainly going to be a big , you know , a big priority this year is dealing with the fallout from the Supreme Court decision last year that overturned concealed carry laws. And California narrowly failed last year to pass a follow up law , putting restrictions on where people can carry weapons. So that will be a big focus this year for for lawmakers is trying to craft a law that fits within that Supreme Court decision but still puts certain kinds of restrictions on where people can carry weapons in the state.

S1: Alexi Koseff is a reporter with Cal Matters and focuses on California politics. Alexi , always great to have you here. Thanks so much for joining us.

S2: Thank you.

S1: That's going to do it for this week's edition of KPBS Roundtable. Be sure to stream our show any time as a podcast. Roundtable is produced by Andrew Bracken. Rebecca Chacon and Adrian Villa-Lobos are our technical directors. I'm your host , Matt Hoffman. Thanks so much for being here with us.

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Guns sit on a table after being turned in to San Diego police at a gun buyback event on December 21, 2012 at the United African American Ministerial Action Council in San Diego.
Katie Schoolov
Guns sit on a table after being turned in to San Diego police at a gun buyback event on December 21, 2012 at the United African American Ministerial Action Council in San Diego.
Multiple recent mass shootings across California put the focus on the long-standing problem of gun violence in the state.

Matt Hoffman hosts a discussion reacting to the latest series of mass shootings in California.

Guests include the LAist's Mariana Dale, Los Angeles Times columnist Mark Barabak, and CalMatters reporter Alexi Koseff.