Federal Judge Strikes Down Controversial California Handgun Roster Law on 2nd Amendment Grounds

On Monday, March 20, District Judge Cormac Carney in Santa Anna, California struck down the state’s Handgun Roster gun control law finding it violated the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

This is the latest blow to gun control advocates striking down state gun laws following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2022 expanding gun rights. The repeal will take effect fourteen days following the ruling.

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AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

California’s Unsafe Handgun Act required all new semiautomatic handguns sold to Californians to have unique safety features not required in other states effectively freezing the technology available and preventing handgun[sic] modern safer handguns designs from being available to Californians.  The law was later amended to include a requirement for microstamping ammunition, which has never been implemented.

The State has consciously viewed the deliberate winnowing of handguns approved for sale to Californians as a policy outcome objective of Sacramento. But in 15 days, the entire inventory of decades of handgun technology improvements will become available to California gun buyers.

Overnight, handguns only available to law enforcement will again be legal for ordinary citizens to buy and own. Advances in size, reliability, ergonomics, and safety will be on the shelves. An era will end of US manufacturers having to invest in what were called “CA models”, which tried to adapt to California’s requirements, often resulting in significant performance degrades compared to the same handgun available in the other forty-nine states.

The law was challenged in 2018 but was rejected by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A new lawsuit was filed in 2022 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that gun control laws must be consistent with the nation’s “historical tradition” of gun control regulation. Judge Carney specifically pointed out in the ruling that the state had failed to point to any historical parallel for the Unsafe Handgun Act and that Californians “should not be forced to settle for decade-old models of handguns.”

The court ruling bolsters the legal view that other gun control laws across the nation are likely to face similar “historical” test scrutiny.  Arguments by states seeking to defend their historical right to pass gun control laws since the Supreme Court decision have sometimes grasped at hyperbole calling on examples of American prejudice and oppression as the basis for “historical” proof of the rights of the state as senior to that of the citizenry, which 2A proponents have argued violates the principles of both the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.

Such lines of argument have not sat well with the courts as they apply the Equal Protection of the 14th Amendment to these 2nd Amendment cases.  There are additional 2nd Amendment cases pending in California and in other states such as New York.  The ruling in California could be a harbinger of other decisions that will continue to emerge as 2023 progresses.

Late in the day, California State Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office issued the following statement,

“The fact of the matter is, California’s gun safety laws save lives, and California’s Unsafe Handgun Act is no exception,” said Attorney General Bonta. “We will continue to lead efforts to advance and defend California’s gun safety laws. As we move forward to determine next steps in this case, Californians should know that this injunction has not gone into effect and that California’s important gun safety requirements related to the Unsafe Handgun Act remain in effect.”

Today’s decision is stayed for 14 days to allow the State to file an appeal and seek a further stay from the court of appeals, and the chamber load indicator, magazine disconnect, and microstamping requirements for new semiautomatic pistols remain in effect until at least that time. The district court’s decision also does not disturb the State’s requirement that to be available for retail sale, a semiautomatic pistol must appear on the Roster of Certified Handguns after passing other safety requirements, such as drop safety and firing tests conducted by a certified independent laboratory.

This would indicate that California has not decided if it will appeal the decision; indeed, the State may be trial ballooning the option to accept the ruling once the 14-day stay is lifted. California may choose to let the decision stand and instruct the Department of Justice to allow testing laboratories to begin certifying more handguns into the Roster of Certified Handguns.

This would mean that ordinary gun owners will be able to purchase many more new types of firearms. It would also mean that a legislative chapter that began in 1999 may finally be reaching closure.

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