SACRAMENTO — After more than two years of empty streets and withering commerce, California’s capital city seemed to be getting back to its pre-pandemic self this weekend. Thousands turned out for a concert at the downtown Golden 1 Center featuring Tyler, the Creator, and crowds filled the nearby bars, spilling into the spring night.
In an explosion of violence with echoes across the country, however, that buoyant mood was shattered early Sunday with a barrage of gunfire as revelers were leaving nightclubs. At least six people were killed and at least 12 were wounded in the largest mass shooting in Sacramento history, authorities said.
The mass shooting, which appeared to span a two-square-block area of downtown Sacramento not far from the Capitol building, happened shortly after 2 a.m., as clubs closed.
Chief of Police Kathy Lester — a veteran of the force who was sworn into office just two weeks ago, promising to make gun violence a priority — said it was unclear what had led to the violence.
But law enforcement officials who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about the case said that the incident appeared to be gang related. One said some 72 shots appeared to have been fired in the altercation, with as many as six shooters potentially involved.
Chief Lester said that the police had recovered at least one firearm, a stolen handgun.
At a news conference on Sunday, she said that when officers on patrol nearby responded to the scene, they found a large crowd and at least a half-dozen people shot “in a really tragic situation.” Additional gunshot victims had driven themselves to the hospital or had been taken there.
Chief Lester asked the public to contact the department with any information about the shooting. She said that no one was in custody.
However the shooting began, the sheer number of people killed and wounded suggested that at least some — if not most — may have been bystanders who had merely been out for the evening. A video provided to KCRA-TV, a local television station, showed a throng of people running in terror for cover, as bullets fired from what sounded like a semiautomatic weapon began to pop around them. Witnesses said the street was chaotic.
Two bicyclists who had been riding downtown when the shooting occurred said they had just passed the clubs when they heard the gunfire.
There was a huge crowd on K Street, said one, who would identify himself only as Tom S. He said that he and his fellow cyclist immediately turned and rode back. Video they shot at the scene showed a swarm of police and emergency vehicles, their lights flashing. Although the police chief said the three men and three women who were killed were all adults and were declared dead at the scene, the cyclists added that they saw young people being put into an ambulance.
A homeless woman who uses a wheelchair and camped near City Hall said she, too, heard the gunshots. “I was in a little pup tent,” said the woman, who said her name was Mary, “and I didn’t come out.”
Officials have not released further details about the victims or their conditions. Behind yellow police tape on Sunday, the sidewalks outside the clubs were covered in shattered glass and littered with dozens of bullet casings as police officers sifted through what Chief Lester described as a complex crime scene.
“I got a son down there under a blanket,” said Fred Harris, 63, a Sacramento resident. He said he had been awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call from his daughter, who, sobbing, said that his son, Sergio Harris, 38, was among those killed.
“I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, no,’” Mr. Harris said. “She said, ‘Put your clothes on, I’ll meet you down there.’” He said his son had been at a club called El Santo Ultralounge when the shooting started.
Leticia Harris, 35, the wife of Sergio Harris, said that he was a landscaper with three children between the ages of 5 and 11.
“He was a happy guy, a family guy, loved his kids,” she said. “He was just having fun at a pub.”
Berry Accius, a local community activist and the founder of Voice of Youth, which supports youth mentorship and gun-violence intervention programs, said he had received a text from an official moments after the shooting, alerting him that several people had been killed.
Mr. Accius said he got to the scene at about 2:30 a.m. and saw a woman covered in blood. “My sister is dead,” he heard her scream, as the authorities raced to treat the seriously wounded.
Mr. Accius also said he heard a woman crying as she walked past the yellow crime scene tape, asking where her son was. Another woman, he said, approached him and “talked about her sister’s last breath in her arms.”
The mass shooting was the second in just over a month in Sacramento. In late February, a father killed his three young daughters, a chaperone and himself in a church during a supervised custody visitation. Sunday’s death toll is the highest in the state in a single event since last year, when 10 people were fatally shot in San Jose.
Although the police did not say what type of gun had been recovered, Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento County district attorney, said on Sunday that “the number of illegal guns in communities across this country is staggering.”
In a statement, Gov. Gavin Newsom denounced “another mass casualty shooting” that had left “families with lost loved ones, multiple individuals injured and a community in grief.” A bill pending at the governor’s behest — inspired by a Texas abortion law — would encourage the public to help enforce a state ban on unregistered ghost guns and assault-style weapons by filing private lawsuits against gun manufacturers.
Speaking at the scene on Sunday, Darrell Steinberg, the mayor of Sacramento, called for more mental health funding for young people and for more action on gun violence. At least nine mass shooting events — defined by at least four people shot — occurred in a single weekend last month across the country, as have many more with fewer victims.
“It is a sickness in our culture, and we have to do everything we can to cure that sickness,” the mayor said.
He also urged the city not to give up on its downtown, which emptied drastically during the past two years as thousands of state workers were sent home to work remotely. This year, Mr. Steinberg publicly pleaded for the return of those and other office workers, and on Sunday he noted that the city had spent more than $8 million on lighting and other safety measures downtown, much of which remains boarded up and strewn with encampments of homeless people.
“We want to urge people to be safe, of course,” the mayor said. “But we don’t want to shut down. That would be the wrong response.”
Isabella Kwai and Giulia Heyward contributed reporting.