California gun control law banning high-capacity magazines struck down by 9th Circuit

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D. ROSS CAMERON/San Jose Mercury News/MCT

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In a blow to one of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s signature gun-control laws, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday overturned California’s ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines.

“Even well-intentioned laws must pass constitutional muster,” appellate Judge Kenneth Lee wrote on behalf of two of the three judges on the panel. “California’s near-categorical ban of (large-capacity magazines) strikes at the core of the Second Amendment, the right to armed self-defense. Armed self-defense is a fundamental right rooted in tradition and the text of the Second Amendment.”

At a press conference Friday, Newsom said he expects the state ban to survive, since local government restrictions on high-capacity magazines have overcome previous legal challenges.

“I know the overwhelming — I don’t think; I know — the overwhelming majority of Californians agreed when they supported a ballot initiative that we put forth asking them for their opinion on this subject as well,” he told reporters.

Newsom was California’s lieutenant governor in 2016 when he championed Proposition 63, a ballot initiative that prohibited Californians from owning ammunition magazines — sometimes incorrectly described as “clips” — holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.

In the aftermath of several mass shootings where the gunmen used the magazines, voters approved the law a few months after then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1446 that also enacted a ban.

The proposition’s language superseded Brown’s law. Under the proposition, those with large-capacity magazines were required to take them out of state, sell them to a licensed firearms dealer or surrender them to law enforcement. They faced misdemeanors, fines and up to a year in jail if they kept them.

California police departments reported that few gun owners actually turned them in, however. And some conservative, rural sheriffs said they wouldn’t enforce the ban, if people weren’t breaking other laws.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office, which defended the ban in court, said it was “carefully reviewing the decision, with the goal of protecting public safety.”

“The Attorney General remains committed to using every tool possible to defend California’s gun safety laws and keep our communities safe,” Becerra’s office said in a statement.

Becerra could ask for the full appellate court to consider the case, or he could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Gun owners will still be prohibited from purchasing the magazines while the case remains pending.

“We expect the full court will rehear the case and correct this erroneous, dangerous, and out-of-step decision,” Eric Tirschwell of Everytown Law told the Associated Press. The association is the legal arm of Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group.

The California Rifle and Pistol Association, a plaintiff in the case, called the ruling a “victory for the Second Amendment, both in California and across the country.” The group said it hopes the U.S. Supreme Court, which has a conservative majority and a recent history of shooting down gun-control laws, will take up the case.

In the decision, the panel held that firearm magazines are protected under the Second Amendment, that large-capacity magazines “are commonly owned and typically used for lawful purposes,” and that they are not “unusual arms” that would fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment.

The panel ruled that “there was no persuasive historical evidence in the record” showing that large-capacity magazine possession falls outside the realm of Second Amendment protections and the restrictions were “so sweeping that half of all magazines in America are now unlawful to own in California.”

Meanwhile, the 9th Circuit is weighing a separate challenge to another portion of Newsom’s Proposition 63 that created California’s problem-plagued ammunition background-check program.

In April, U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez said the state’s program has been used to “systematically prohibit or deter an untold number of law-abiding California citizen-residents from undergoing the required background checks.”

Benitez was the same judge who initially tossed out the high-capacity magazine ban.

The ruling came after a Sacramento Bee investigation in December found that nearly one in five buyers were denied the ability to legally purchase ammunition due to the law. Of the 345,547 background checks performed, the system rejected 62,000 prospective ammo purchases because information hadn’t been entered into the Department of Justice gun registration database.

In a motion, the attorney general said the initial glitches in the system had improved and the background check program has been much more successful at stopping people on the state’s prohibited list from buying ammo than what Benitez cited in his ruling. Becerra said 750 buyers on the state’s list were blocked from acquiring ammunition.

The 9th Circuit stayed Benitez’s ruling pending appeal, so the background check program is still being used.

That case’s lead plaintiff is Kim Rhode, an Olympic shooter and National Rifle Association board member.


©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)