Gunowners Lose Bid to Force Alameda County to Reopen Gun Shops

(AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)

(CN) — A federal judge has denied a request by group of gun advocates seeking to force gun stores and firing ranges shuttered due to Covid-19 to open their doors.  

U.S. District Court Judge Jon Tigar denied a temporary restraining order sought by lead plaintiff Janice Altman and other Second Amendment advocates, finding four Bay Area counties acted in the interest of public health when they shuttered gun stores and firing ranges in mid-March to prevent a larger outbreak of the novel coronavirus.  

“The court concludes that Alameda County’s shelter-in-place order passes constitutional muster,” Tigar wrote in a 39-page order issued late Monday. “The order has a real and substantial relation to the important goal of protecting public health; it reasonably fits that goal; it is facially neutral and does not target firearms retailers or shooting ranges in particular; and it is limited in time.” 

The decision references only Alameda County because the three other Bay Area counties originally defendants in the lawsuit — Santa Clara, Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties — have all amended their initial shelter-in-place orders to allow retail businesses like gun stores to begin opening to the public again.  

Only Alameda County still restricts gun shops due to the public health crisis.  

Tigar said the shelter-in-place orders did place a burden on the Second Amendment, curtailing the individual right to procure and use a firearm, but that burden was reasonable given the breadth and depth of the public health crisis faced by California and the world in mid-March as Italy and New York City reeled from deaths and overwhelmed hospital systems.  

The judge noted a previous ruling involving Ventura County stay-at-home orders found “Covid-19 stay-at-home order does not substantially burden Second Amendment right because it ‘does not specifically target handgun ownership, does not prohibit the ownership of a handgun outright, and is temporary.”

Altman and the other plaintiffs argued that individual homeowners looking to purchase weapons for home protection during the crisis were robbed of their constitutional rights, but Tigar said the temporary nature of the prohibition combined with the solid public health reasoning meant the plaintiffs are unlikely to prevail on the merits. 

“Defendants have demonstrated a reasonable fit between the burden the order places on Second Amendment rights and defendants’ goal of reducing Covid-19 transmission,” Tigar wrote.  

Granting a temporary restraining order qualifies as an extraordinary remedy and one in which courts are reluctant to apply unless entirely necessary. When judging whether to grant such an order, judges analyze whether those seeking the order are likely to succeed on the merits along with other considerations such as whether the plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreversible damage before court proceedings can commence.  

Second Amendment advocates targeted California’s shelter-in-place orders up and down the state, also filing a high-profile federal lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and several public officials for their decisions to close gun stores in mid-March.  

Consistently, the advocates argued a public health crisis — even one of the magnitude of Covid-19 — is not a sufficient reason to deprive citizens of their constitutional rights. Courts have consistently held county public health officials are well within the purview of their authority to close public venues, even if those closures place a temporary but heavy burden on some constitutional rights.  

Plaintiffs in the present case said gun stores should be deemed essential, like grocery stores, laundromats and other places of business that were allowed to continue to operate during the shelter-in-place order.  

But Tigar disagreed.  

“Exempt businesses ‘such as grocery stores, pharmacies, laundromats/dry cleaners, and hardware stores are deemed essential because they provide for the basic needs of residents for food, medicine, hygiene, and shelter,’” the judge wrote, citing the county’s orders.

“Perhaps a different governmental entity could conclude that firearms and ammunition retailers and shooting ranges are essential, and some have,” Tigar wrote, noting federal Department of Homeland Security recommendations. “Unlike the regulatory scheme in Greater New Orleans, however, the efficacy of the order is not ‘undermine[d]’ or ‘counteract[ed]’ by the exclusion of firearms and ammunition retailers from the list. In fact, as defendants have offered evidence that ‘each exception increases the risks of community transmission,’ excluding these retailers in fact ‘directly and materially advance[s]’ Alameda County’s interest in controlling the spread of Covid-19.

“The court thus rejects plaintiffs’ argument that inconsistencies in the list of exempted businesses undermines the degree to which the order is substantially related to defendants’ goal.”

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