SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday threw out California’s ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines, saying the law violates the U.S. Constitution’s protection of the right to bear firearms.
“Even well-intentioned laws must pass constitutional muster,” appellate Judge Kenneth Lee wrote for the panel’s majority. California’s ban on magazines holding more than 10 bullets “strikes at the core of the Second Amendment — the right to armed self-defense.”
He noted that California passed the law “in the wake of heart-wrenching and highly publicized mass shootings,” but said that isn’t enough to justify a ban whose scope “is so sweeping that half of all magazines in America are now unlawful to own in California.”
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office said it is reviewing the decision and he “remains committed to using every tool possible to defend California’s gun safety laws and keep our communities safe.”
Gun owners cannot immediately rush to buy high-capacity magazines because a stay issued by the lower court judge remains in place.
But Becerra did not say if the state would seek a further delay of Friday’s ruling to prevent an immediate buying spree if the lower court judge ends that restriction. Gun groups estimated that more than a million high-capacity ammunition magazines may have legally flooded into California during a one-week window before the judge stayed his ruling three years ago.
Becerra also did not say if he would ask a larger 11-judge appellate panel to reconsider the ruling by the three judges, or if he would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Gov. Gavin Newsom, who championed the magazine ban when he was lieutenant governor, defended the law as a vital gun violence prevention measure.
“I think it was sound, I think it was right, and ... the overwhelming majority of Californians agreed when they supported a ballot initiative that we put forth,” he said Friday.
California Rifle & Pistol Association attorney Chuck Michel called Friday’s decision “a huge victory” for gun owners “and the right to choose to own a firearm to defend your family,” while a group that favors firearms restrictions called it ”dangerous” and expects it will be overturned.
The ruling has national implications because other states have similar restrictions, though it immediately applies only to Western states under the appeals court’s jurisdiction.
Gun rights groups have been trying to get such cases before the nation’s high court now that it has a more conservative majority.
The decision written by an appellate judge appointed by President Donald Trump “should put gun safety advocates across the country on high alert,” said Giffords Law Center Litigation Director Hannah Shearer. “These judges are gaining potentially irreversible inroads on our appellate courts.”
However, the Supreme Court’s majority in June declined to consider several challenges to federal and state gun control laws, including Massachusetts’ ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
Aside from the magazine ban itself, Michel and the unaffiliated Second Amendment Foundation said the case has legal implications for other gun restrictions should it reach the justices because it could allow the court to clarify an obscure legal debate over what standard of review should be used.
“The Supreme Court seems inclined to do away with the complicated subjective tests that many courts have wrongly applied in Second Amendment cases, in favor of a clearer more objective ‘originalist’ approach that considers the text, history and tradition of a law to determine what infringements might be tolerated,” Michel said in an email.
Friday’s ruling was a fractured decision partly because of that issue: Two of the three judges voted to toss out the state’s ban, while the third judge dissented.
U.S. District Court Judge Barbara Lynn of Texas, who had been named the third judge on the appellate panel, said the majority’s ruling conflicts with decisions in six other federal appellate courts across the nation, and with a 2015 ruling by a different panel of the 9th Circuit itself. She said she would have upheld California’s law based on that precedent.
“This ruling is an extreme outlier” given those earlier decisions, said Eric Tirschwell, managing director for Everytown Law, the litigation team affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety that favors firearms restrictions. He said he expects a larger 9th Circuit panel to “correct this erroneous, dangerous, and out-of-step decision.”
Opponents argued unsuccessfully that larger capacity magazines are not needed for self-protection.
“The Second Amendment does not empower private citizens to arm themselves with weapons of war,” said Jonathan Lowy of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Friday’s decision upholds a 2017 ruling by San Diego-based U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who blocked a new law that would have barred gun owners from possessing magazines holding more than 10 bullets.
But he and the appeals court went further by declaring unconstitutional a state law that had prohibited buying or selling such magazines since 2000. That law had let those who had the magazines before then keep them, but barred new sales or imports.