Assault weapons, handguns, age limits: gun rights groups increasingly turn to the courts
When U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez delivered a sweeping ruling to repeal California’s assault weapons laws on June 4, the response was swift and strong.
Governor Gavin Newsom, whose father was a state appeals judge, called Benitez a “wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby.” Attorney General Rob Bonta called the 95-page ruling – the opening sentence of which compared assault weapons to Swiss Army knives – “fundamentally flawed” and promised a swift appeal.
Still, the decision was only one of half a dozen challenges to the state’s gun laws pending in federal courts in San Diego. And it was one of the biggest national assaults in recent years on gun laws by gun rights groups, one of which called Benitez’s decision a “historic victory for individual freedom”.
The ruling is on appeal and its effect – which barred the state from continuing to enforce gun regulations – is pending while the case is under review by the 9th State Court of Appeals -United. So are two other rulings made by Benitez in the past two years, one that overturned the state’s ban on high-capacity magazines and a second that removed ammunition background checks. .
The trio of cases are part of a broader legal campaign by gun ownership advocates who have taken to federal courts in recent years with constitutional challenges that target state gun regulations. fire from various angles.
“This is certainly a conscious litigation strategy. Once we had a friendlier Supreme Court, we started to press charges to bring a case to that level. “
Alan M. Gottlieb, Founder of the Second Amendment Foundation
Emboldened by a 2008 United States Supreme Court ruling that said the Second Amendment allowed an individual to own guns for self-defense and other purposes, and a federal court that since 2016 has been sown with a new batch of judges who generally favor a reading broad gun rights lawsuits seek to lock in broader gun ownership rights.
With some of the toughest gun control laws in the country, California has become the center of these legal battles. And while lawsuits have been filed in each of the state’s four federal judicial districts, San Diego has emerged as a major front in the legal battle.
Target state laws
No less than six lawsuits covering everything from assault-type weapons to the number of weapons that can be purchased in a single 30-day period have been filed in federal court in San Diego. The plaintiffs include individuals, many of whom are members of the San Diego County Gun Owners Group, as well as leading advocacy groups such as the Second Amendment Foundation and the Firearms Policy Coalition.
In addition to the three cases Benitez has already ruled on, three other lawsuits involve large chunks of the state’s gun laws:
In November, a group of gun owners and advocacy groups filed a lawsuit against a new law expanding California’s handgun regulations. Part of that law required the state to remove three handguns from its list of handguns approved for sale, for every new handgun added. Armed groups have claimed that this will inevitably reduce the number of legal handguns that state residents can purchase.
The lawsuit was also intended to challenge claims that the state’s demands that new handguns have certain characteristics were unconstitutional. These requests were rejected by a federal judge in Los Angeles and the court of appeals in 2018.
- A complaint filed in 2019 sought to lift restrictions on residents between the ages of 18 and 20 on the purchase of firearms, saying it violated the constitutional rights of young adults. Judge James Lorenz dismissed the allegations in November. The case is now on appeal.
- A lawsuit challenges state law that limits purchases of handguns and assault rifles to one every 30 days.
Other cases in the state include one in San Francisco, arguing that people who had at one point lost their legal right to own firearms, but then reinstated that right in other states, should be licensed to own firearms in California. A lawsuit in federal court in Sacramento last year focused on the state’s glitch system for registering assault weapons.
And gun rights groups filed lawsuits in several counties last year for the mandatory closure of gun stores and shooting ranges during the pandemic. One of the main lawsuits against Los Angeles County is now on appeal after a federal judge upheld the orders.
The gun owners groups, led by the National Rifle Association, have long touted themselves as the oldest civil rights organizations in the country. What’s different now, said Darrell Miller, professor at Duke University Law School, is that gun groups are joining their ever-strong hold in legislatures to defeat gun control measures. fire with a campaign in court to extend these rights.
Historically, civil rights groups have turned to the courts after losing fights in the legislatures.
“Gun rights organizations are often on the winning side of legislative debates,” said Mitchell, co-director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law. “Not only are gun rights advocates winning in politics, at least most of the time. They also seek to anchor these protections as constitutional protections. “
Alan M. Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said his group has filed at least 40 lawsuits in federal courts across the country in recent years.
“This is definitely a conscious litigation strategy,” Gottlieb said. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation in 2020 only fueled an already underway legal strategy. This gave the court what Gottlieb and others see as six strong votes for expanded gun rights.
“Once we had a friendlier Supreme Court,” he said, “we started to take legal action to bring a case to this level.”
Why so many costumes in San Diego? Michael Schwartz, executive director of the San Diego County Gun Owners PAC, said it was simple: there are many gun owners here, and his group is well organized and active and willing to go to court.
He said the lawsuits are nothing more than an expected reaction to states like California adopting stricter gun control measures.
“I don’t know if this is as much a strategy as it is a sign of the times,” said Schwartz, whose groups are claimants in several of the lawsuits in San Diego. Schwartz and his wife are also individual plaintiffs in the handgun lawsuit.
“There have been a lot of laws that have significantly violated the rights of people to own and bear arms. Lawsuits are a natural reaction or perhaps an obvious reaction to this sort of thing. “
Ari Freilich, director of state policy for gun control groups Giffords Law Center, disagreed. He said that after Benitez’s first decision in 2019 to overturn the ban on high-capacity magazines, gun rights groups embarked on a sort of forum shopping – “quite clearly intentionally sued. before the same federal district court to try to continue to have cases heard before Judge Benitez.
Overall, he said, gun rights groups see federal courts – now staffed with more than 200 judges appointed under President Donald Trump, many of whom have a record of advancing rights. of gun ownership versus gun control laws – as a bulwark against growing support for controls among the public and legislatures.
“This has created a favorable environment for the NRA and the Firearms Policy Coalition to re-content 2nd Amendment cases on almost all policy issues related to gun violence nationwide since 2017,” Freilich said in an e -mail, “with the goal of putting in place a Supreme A court challenge that would expand gun rights and bring them closer to stripping basic gun safety protections across the country.”
The legal battles are unfolding against a backdrop of polls showing voter support for some tougher gun laws, such as universal background checks, as well as an increase in gun purchases. Last week, Bonta reported a 65% increase in handgun sales in 2020 over 2019 in California.
The news came two months after San Diego judge Dana Sabraw denied a request from state attorneys to dismiss the handguns lawsuit. Sabraw dismissed part of the case, but said the challenge of requiring three handguns to be eliminated for every weapon added to the roster could go ahead.