SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California’s highest court handed gun manufacturers a setback in their fight against what they called an “impossible” state requirement to place microstamps on bullet casings, with the justices ruling Thursday that courts cannot carve out impossibility exceptions after a law has been passed.
Since 2013, California’s Unsafe Handgun Act requires two identifying microstamps on a cartridge when a bullet is fired. The technology would allow law enforcement to track spent casings to gun owners, because laser engravings would leave the serial number, make and model from each bullet fired.
Gun makers and lobbyists argued microstamp technology doesn’t exist at this time and the state’s requirement makes the statute impossible to comply with.
National Shooting Sports Foundation sued California in 2014, but a Fresno County Superior Court judge dismissed the case in 2015. The judge ruled concerns about inability to comply with the statute are for the Legislature, not courts, to handle.
An appellate panel ruled gun manufacturers did have a right to try and prove that they could not comply with the law. The case was then argued before the California Supreme Court in April.
In Thursday’s opinion, Associate Justice Goodwin Liu wrote the sole dispute before the panel is whether a court could invalidate a specific section of the penal code on the basis of a civil code that declares “[t]he law never requires impossibilities.” The high court did not address the constitutionality of the microstamp recquirement.
The civil code is “an interpretive canon for construing statutes, not a means for invalidating them,” Liu wrote for the court. “Impossibility can occasionally excuse noncompliance with a statute, but in such circumstances, the excusal constitutes an interpretation of the statute in accordance with the Legislature’s intent, not an invalidation of the statute.”
The shooting sports foundation had cited three out-of-state cases to support its expansive reading of the civil code, including a 1984 Florida case that said a violation of a statute is excused where it appears without dispute that compliance with that law is impossible.
A 2007 amendment of the Unsafe Handgun Act deemed “all semiautomatic pistols that are not already listed on the roster” unsafe if they lack the dual-placement microstamping. The amendment finally took effect in 2013, when the state’s Department of Justice certified the technology was available.
Liu said the foundation should have used the six years between passage and effect to fight the mandate.
“Neither the text nor the purpose of the act contemplates that a showing of impossibility can excuse compliance with the statutory requirement once the statute goes into effect,” he wrote.
Associate Justice Ming Chin concurred but disagreed that the Department of Justice’s certification has any relevance to the question of carving out exceptions to the statute based on impossibility.
“In my view, courts remain free, based on legislative intent, to construe [the penal code section] inapplicable to a particular case because compliance in that case would be impossible,” wrote Chin.
The high court’s decision reverses the appeals court and remands with an order to affirm judgment for the state.
A phone call to the National Shooting Sports Foundation seeking comment was not immediately returned.