In a major victory for gun-control advocates, a federal appeals court Tuesday upheld California’s ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, overturning earlier rulings.
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals called the California laws “a reasonable fit for the important government interest of reducing gun violence.”
The ruling upholds two California laws enacted in 2016, SB 1446 and the voter-approved Proposition 63, which were touted as a response to mass shootings. Both actions sought to crack down on magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition. The ballot proposition, which contains broader language, required gun owners to take their high-capacity magazines out of state, sell them to a licensed dealer or surrender them to law enforcement.
As a practical matter, few California gun owners surrendered their magazines, and some rural sheriffs told The Sacramento Bee they wouldn’t actively enforce the ban unless they found that gun owners were violating other laws.
Then the courts stepped in, acting on litigation brought by groups representing the state’s 6 million gun owners — and said California’s ban was unconstitutional.
A federal judge in Southern California initially declared that California was violating the Second Amendment and the Constitution’s “takings clause.” Last year a three-judge panel on the 9th Circuit sided with the Southern California judge and struck down California’s ban.
Now the full 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit has declared that California can enforce the prohibition on large-capacity magazines, saying the state isn’t violating anyone’s constitutional rights.
“The statute outlaws no weapon, but only limits the size of the magazine that may be used with firearms,” wrote Judge Susan Graber.
She added that “there is no evidence that anyone ever has been unable to defend his or her home and family due to the lack of a large capacity magazine.”
Citing the litany of mass shootings carried out with firearms outfitted with high-capacity magazines, she said “the limitation saves lives.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta called the decision “a victory for public safety in California” and added: “Laws like our ban on large-capacity magazines are commonsense ways to prevent this violence, including devastating mass shootings.
“Our laws keep Californians safe while allowing law-abiding gun owners to exercise their constitutional rights.”
And Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel at gun-control advocate the Brady Center, said the court’s ruling shows that “the Constitution, properly understood, does not prevent Americans from enacting the gun laws they want and need to protect their families and communities.”
Republican appointees claim bias against Second Amendment
The decision was not unanimous.
Judges went back and forth with one another in the main opinion and in dissenting opinions, at times suggesting fellow members of the court were acting on personal motives rather than legal evidence.
Judge Lawrence VanDyke, appointed to the court by former President Donald Trump, wrote in his dissent that the “majority of this court distrusts gun owners and thinks the Second Amendment is a vestigial organ of their living constitution.”
“This case is the latest demonstration that the Circuit’s current test is too elastic to impose any discipline on judges who fundamentally disagree with the need to keep and bear arms,” VanDyke wrote.
Judge Patrick J. Bumatay, joined by Judges Sandra S. Ikuta and Ryan D. Nelson, also dissented against the majority opinion. Bumatay and Nelson were appointed to the court by Trump; Ikuta was appointed to the appeals court by former President George Bush.
The judges wrote that the scrutiny applied by the majority “functions as nothing more than a black box used by judges to uphold favored laws and strike down disfavored ones.”
Bumatay said the California actions strip law-abiding citizens of their rights.
“While the court can acknowledge that California asserts a public safety interest, it cannot bend the law to acquiesce to a policy that contravenes the clear decision made by the American people when they ratified the Second Amendment,” Bumatay wrote.
“The state bans magazines that can carry over ten rounds — a firearm component with a long historical lineage commonly used by Americans for lawful purposes, like self-defense,” he wrote. “Indeed, these magazines are lawfully owned by millions of people nationwide and come standard on the most popular firearms sold today. If California’s law applied nationwide, it would require confiscating half of all existing firearms magazines in this country.”
The Firearms Policy Coalition, a Sacramento-based pro-gun rights group that filed legal briefs in the case, said it thinks the plaintiffs will appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. It said the Supreme Court must resist “the Bizarro World subversion, obstruction, and avoidance doctrines employed by hostile and recalcitrant judges.
“Individuals have a natural right to keep and bear arms — one that is enshrined in our Constitution and which pre-exists government itself — and that entitlement includes the right to purchase and possess firearm magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition.”