Guns. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rod_Waddington.
Guns. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Rod_Waddington.

[highlight]On the radio…[/highlight]

[box type=”shadow this-matters”]President Obama’s executive actions have raised the temperature of the gun debate.[/box]

Tonight at Virginia’s George Mason University, President Barack Obama will hold a town hall on gun violence. Sure to come up are the president’s executive actions tightening rules on background checks for gun sales.

But most residents of San Diego County won’t feel the effect of those new rules.

For one thing, the rules in California aren’t actually changing.

For another, there aren’t that many gun buyers and sellers in San Diego, relatively speaking.

The two might be related.

San Diego ranks 47th among the state’s 58 counties in attempted gun purchases per resident, with 1.83 attempted purchases per 100 residents, according to an inewsource analysis of data from the California Department of Justice.

From Jan. 1 through Dec. 8 of last year — the latest period for which data is available — San Diego County’s 3.3 million residents attempted to purchase a combined 59,785 guns.

Attempted Gun Purchases and Gun Dealer Licenses in California

This map is shaded based on the number of attempted gun purchases per 100,000 residents.

Sources: California Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms DROS data from Jan. 1 through Dec. 8, 2015, ATF listing of federal firearms licensees for December 2015, U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Population Estimates | Download the data behind this map here

That’s a far cry from the situation in Lassen County. The county, located in the state’s northeast along the Nevada border, had an attempted purchase rate of 7.49 per 100 residents, the highest in the state.

The county has a population of just 32,000, and many of the counties with the highest ratios were similarly situated: sparsely populated and in the state’s north and east, bordering Oregon and Nevada.

Of the state’s five most populous counties — Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino — none ranked higher than 41st.

Michael Schwartz, executive director of the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, attributed the bigger counties’ relatively low numbers to the hesitancy among some big county sheriffs — those in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Bernardino particularly — to issue concealed carry permits.

“Most counties in California issue concealed carry permits to those who want to protect themselves, which is different from San Diego and LA and somewhat different from Orange and Riverside County,” Schwartz said. “The interest is there and I think if people did have the ability to protect themselves and protect their family when they’re outside the home, that you would see probably an increase in numbers of gun owners [in these larger counties].”

Data for the federal firearms licenses that allow gun dealers (gun shops, pawn shops and individual sellers) to ply their trade tells a similar story.

San Diego ranks 52nd among the state’s 58 counties in licenses per resident, with just 116 active licenses as of last month — 3.55 licenses per 100,000 residents. The most populous counties were again clustered toward the bottom of the list.

San Diego County’s relative lack of enthusiasm for selling guns is apparent across state lines, too. The county’s 3.55 gun dealer licenses per 100,000 residents ranked seventh among the nation’s 10 largest counties. The leader of that bunch, Arizona’s Maricopa County (think Phoenix and its suburbs), counts more than four times as many licenses per 100,000 residents.

Gun Dealer Licenses in the 10 Largest U.S. Counties

CountyGun Dealer Licenses per 100,000 ResidentsLicensesPopulation
Maricopa County, AZ15.516344,087,191
Harris County, TX12.325474,441,370
Dallas County, TX9.812472,518,638
Riverside County, CA7.171672,329,271
Orange County, CA5.751813,145,515
Miami-Dade County, FL5.561482,662,874
San Diego County, CA3.551163,263,431
Los Angeles County, CA2.5325610,116,705
Cook County, IL0.97515,246,456
Kings County, NY0.3492,621,793
Sources: ATF listing of federal firearms licensees for December 2015, U.S. Census Bureau 2014 Population Estimates

Here, too, Schwartz pointed to the regulatory difference in gun laws between the states as a likely contributor to the large California counties’ relative coolness to guns.

“When we’re comparing counties in California to counties outside of California, especially in states like Texas, it’s apples and oranges in that it’s extremely difficult to own a gun, it’s difficult to buy a gun and it’s difficult to sell a gun in California,” Schwartz said.

But relatively strict gun laws haven’t kept California from experiencing a years-long, national trend of increasing firearms sales.

Over the past five years, criminal background checks of prospective gun buyers conducted with the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System have risen dramatically in California and nationally.

In California, such checks rose from 63,048 in January 2010 to 252,946 last month — more than at any month in the past five years — and last year’s total of 1,761,079 checks was an annual record. The trend nationally is similar.

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Monthly Gun Buyer Background Checks Conducted

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Source: FBI National Instant Criminal Background Check System

It’s important to note that these statistics do not represent the number of firearms sold. For example, an individual may purchase more than one firearm after passing a single check and not all sales between private individuals require a background check.

So if California’s strict gun laws — and their particularly strict interpretation in San Diego — are tamping down enthusiasm for firearms locally, what effect might the president’s new executive actions have here?

In a word: none.

Obama’s executive actions encompass two major changes and both seek to tighten background check rules.

One clarifies that even people claiming to just be private citizens whose primary source of income isn’t selling guns must still conduct background checks on people who buy guns from them. The other seeks to close a loophole that allows people to avoid background checks when they buy and sell certain weapons by forming LLCs or corporate trusts to make the purchases.

Meredith Davis, the public information officer at the ATF’s Los Angeles field office, summed up the rule changes this way: “I think a fair interpretation is that the definition of who is engaged in the business of selling firearms will expand.”

But California has for years adopted an even more expansive interpretation of being engaged in the business of selling firearms.

Under California law, all gun sales have to go through a dealer who holds a federal firearms license and can conduct a background check on the buyer. This includes online sales, sales at gun shows and sales between friends or neighbors (known as private party transfers), explained Kristin Ford, deputy communications director at the California Department of Justice.

If someone doesn’t have a gun dealer’s license, the seller has to run the transaction through someone (or some business) who does.

Schwartz, who’s no fan of the president’s latest moves or of California’s strict gun regulations, agrees.

“For years, California has required private party transfers and transfers from dealers go through a background check and, in fact, in California, you have to follow all the same rules whether you’re buying from a dealer or buying from a private party,” Schwartz said.

Likewise, California already requires that if an individual wants to purchase a firearm through an LLC or a corporate trust, the individual must undergo a background check.

Given all that, it’s likely that the president’s executive actions will have little effect on how many guns are bought and sold in San Diego County. That means the county’s relative level of gun business is likely to stay about where it is now: toward the bottom of the pack both in-state and nationally.

Joe Yerardi is a freelance data journalist for inewsource, where he worked between 2013 and 2016 as an investigative reporter and data specialist. To contact him with questions, tips or corrections, email

One reply on “Obama’s actions unlikely to change San Diego’s low numbers of gun buyers and sellers”

  1. How is comparing January 2010 to December 2015 relevant or meaningful? There may be a variety of reasons why December 2015 would have caused more applications (e.g. San Bernardino). From your chart, the long-term trend is up. That’s meaningful, but comparing December in one year to January in another is not a particularly good use of statistics.

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