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California handgun control measures halted by federal judge

The latest California regulations targeted by gun enthusiasts involve device safety requirements, including technology to stamp bullet casings with the make, model and serial number of the firing gun.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge has ordered California to stop enforcing important components of its handgun control laws after a group of gun owners and gun lobbying groups sued claiming the laws violate their Second Amendment rights.

The lawsuit revolves around provisions of California’s Unsafe Handgun Act. The act requires that all handguns manufactured and sold in the state to meet safety device and testing requirements, like a chamber load indicator, visual indicators that show there’s a round in the chamber of a gun, a magazine disconnect mechanism and a microstamp — characters imprinted on bullet casings which can be used to identify the make, model, and serial number of the gun it was fired from. The law also requires the California Department of Justice to keep a roster of all guns that have been tested for safety by the state, and gunmakers must pay an annual fee to keep their products on the roster.  

The plaintiffs claim all of the provisions violated their Second Amendment rights to buy handguns, especially new handgun designs. But the state argues the laws don't restrict people from buying handguns — just ones not on the roster.

Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw sided with the plaintiffs as to the load indicator, magazine disconnect mechanism, and microstamping requirements, noting that no gun manufacturers in the U.S. microstamp their guns.

“These handguns are sold throughout the United States, in 47 states. California is a distinct outlier,” Sabraw, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote in a preliminary injunction order issued Friday. “If the commercial sales limitation identified in Heller were interpreted as broadly as the state suggests, the exception would swallow the Second Amendment.”  

Sabraw added that the Second Amendment doesn’t make a distinction between makes and models of guns.

“All handguns are covered, so long as they are in common use. Thus, plaintiffs’ ability to commercially purchase off-roster semiautomatic handguns falls within the plain text of the Second Amendment and is presumptively protected," he wrote.

The judge stayed his order pending appeal.

Sabraw, who has been with this case since it was filed in November of 2020, made his decision based on two recent court decisions. The first one, last year’s Supreme Court case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, held New York’s concealed carry laws were unconstitutional, that carrying a gun in public is a constitutional right, and that a local government has to justify its own gun regulations by showing they’re consistent with gun regulations in the country’s past.  

When California’s lawyers pulled out laws from Massachusetts, Maine and New York from the 18th and 19th centuries that regulated state inspection of guns and the storage of gunpowder, Sabraw knocked the arguments down. “The 1783 Massachusetts law, 1792 New York City statute, and 1821 Maine law are not analogues to the challenged provisions of the Unsafe Handgun Act. Those laws regulated the storage of gunpowder and loaded firearms with gunpowder for fire safety reasons, not gun operation safety reasons.”

The second case Sabraw cited is a very similar case in the Central District of California — a March 20 ruling that barred the state’s ban on the sale of semiautomatic guns that don’t have a chamber load indicator, magazine disconnect mechanism, or microstamped cartridges. 

The challenge before Sabraw predates the Central District case and presents a broader argument against California’s gun regulations according to Bill Sacks, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys in the Southern District case, and the director of legal operations for the Firearms Policy Coalition.

Sacks said the original formulation of their case was against the state’s 3-to-1 rule, which required that the state remove three grandfathered handguns for every new handgun added to the handgun roster. 

The plaintiffs then amended the complaints to respond to new gun control laws.

“This one in particular is a big deal. It’s a big win for us, and for the people of California,” he said. “It’s a big step in the right direction.”

Sacks said gun lobbyists are pursuing a similar case in Massachusetts to strike down their gun control regulations. 

Sacks said he expects the state to appeal. He doesn't know yet if his clients are going to appeal the limited nature of Sabraw's injunction.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta's office said the state is reviewing the order and will respond in court, but noted Sabraw stayed his order pending appeal and the Ninth Circuit granted a stay in the other case.

In a statement following the ruling in the Central District case, Bonta wrote: “California’s commonsense gun safety laws save lives, and the Unsafe Handgun Act is no exception. Accidental shootings are preventable. The fact that children under five are the most likely victims makes these accidental gun deaths even more tragic and inexcusable. As weapons become faster, more powerful, and more deadly, this risk only increases. Flooding the marketplace with unsafe semiautomatic pistols that do not meet necessary safety requirements poses a serious threat to public health and safety, especially for children and young adults.”

Categories / Government, Regional

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