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California Gun Law Headed to Supreme Court?
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By Dan Walters, CalMatters Commentary
Published 2 years ago on
December 1, 2021

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California has some of the nation’s tightest gun control laws and virtually no session of the Legislature ends without additional restrictions being enacted.

In polling and by their votes, Californians have heartily endorsed making gun purchases and ownership increasingly more difficult.

Dan Walters

Opinion

As California’s restrictive laws proliferated, however, the state’s current and would-be gun owners complained that notwithstanding their political popularity, the laws violate Californians’ constitutional right to bear arms, codified in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Those complaints are now likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court because of Tuesday’s decision by the 9th District Court of Appeals upholding two of the state’s most controversial gun control laws, banning the sale and possession of magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. One was enacted by the Legislature and the other in a ballot initiative (Proposition 63) sponsored by Gavin Newsom in 2016 when he was lieutenant governor.

Federal Judge’s Ruling Overturned

A federal judge in San Diego, Roger Benitez, became a hero to gun owners when he struck down Proposition 63’s 10-round magazine limit two years ago, saying that it unconstitutionally interfered with using guns for self-protection. “The statute hits at the center of the Second Amendment and its burden is severe,” Benitez wrote.

Newsom had become governor when Benitez ruled and denounced the judge as a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association.”

A three-three judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court sided with Benitez but on Tuesday, the full 11-judge court, dividing along ideological lines, ratified the magazine laws. It declared that they “reasonably supported California’s effort to reduce the devastating damage wrought by mass shootings.

The majority opinion added that requiring owners of higher-capacity magazine to get rid of them is not an illegal government “taking” because “the government acquires nothing by virtue of the limitation on the capacity of magazines.”

Trump-Appointed Judges Dissent

The case sparked a welter of opinions from individual members of the court both endorsing the majority opinion and dissenting.

Three judges appointed by former President Donald Trump were sharply critical of the majority, saying, “these magazines are lawfully owned by millions of people
nationwide” and warning that applying California’s law across America would “require confiscating half of all existing firearms magazines in this country.”

Newsom, of course, hailed the ruling that upheld his ballot measure, tweeting, “Weapons of war don’t belong on our streets. This is a huge victory for the health and safety of all Californians.”

California being what it is, the nation’s most populous state with some of the nation’s tightest gun laws, the eventual outcome of the magazine capacity case could have wide effects. Blue state prosecutors filed briefs supporting California’s position while those in Texas and other red states backed Benitez’s ruling.

Gun Advocates Promise Appeal to U.S. Supreme Court

The possibility of it becoming a landmark case was enhanced when lawyers for gun owners who challenged the state’s magazine limit immediately promised that they would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

If, as Tuesday’s decision indicated, judicial attitudes about gun control laws divide along ideological lines, California’s limit on magazine capacity could face rough treatment from the Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority.

In recent decisions, the Supreme Court has become increasingly critical of restrictive gun laws and has a landmark case now pending, involving New York’s ban on carrying guns outside the home.

During arguments a few weeks ago, majority justices gave every indication they would overturn the law, criticizing it for interfering with citizens’ rights to self-defense. That’s essentially the same line of reasoning that Judge Benitez adopted in overturning California’s magazine limit.

About the Author

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of them working for California newspapers. He now writes for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.  For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.

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