Challenges coming to California gun laws in wake of Supreme Court decision

When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed last year to hear a Second Amendment challenge to Washington D.C.'s ban on handguns, gun rights groups called it a step towards challenging California's gun laws.

Last week, the court overturned the D.C. ban. But gun control groups and others say the court's ruling was too narrow to overturn any state laws. Meanwhile, some in the gun-rights movement are urging people to be careful about what lawsuits they file in the wake of Heller vs. D.C.

One thing no one contests is that the June 26 ruling in Heller vs. D.C. was a major victory for gun rights groups. For the first time ever, the Supreme Court ruled that "the right to keep and bear arms" was an individual right, as opposed to the collective right of a "well regulated militia" that had held legal sway for decades.

This interpretation opens new legal avenues to challenge gun laws. The very same day as the ruling, the NRA filed suit to overturn gun bans in Chicago and San Francisco.

But California is the real prize for many gun rights advocates. The state has some of the most restrictive laws in the country. It's also one of only a few states that doesn't have an individual right to bear arms written into the state constitution, according to Gene Hoffman, chairman of the Cal Guns Foundation.

"Heller has much more of an impact in California than in a lot of other states," Hoffman said.

Cal Guns is mainly known for its website. It claims about 40,000 regular visitors, who keep scores of active discussion threads going. In May, Hoffman said, the foundation incorporated as a non-profit in order to provide a base for legal challenges. But he also added a caveat.

"What's more interesting in some ways is all the things they aren't going to be on the radar," Hoffman said.

In his majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia identified numerous limits on gun ownership that he said did pass constitutional muster. According to his reading, Hoffman said, it would be difficult to use to the ruling to overturn waiting periods to buy guns or restrictions against the sale of guns to felons or those guilty of domestic violence.

The San Francisco case could be an important next step in applying the Heller case to the state. The NRA is challenging the San Francisco Housing Authorities ban on owning a handgun in public housing. Chuck Michel, the attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said it will likely be an important test for the concept of "incorporation." That is, does the Second Amendment apply to state and local governments? If it does, that could open up new legal avenues.

"The Heller decision only applies the Second Amendment to the Federal Government," said Michel, a partner in the southern California firm Trutanich and Michel. "This is the incorporation test."

Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, outlined a more ambitious agenda than many. While his group is still figuring out its next move, he envisioned a large-scale rollback of California gun laws, including the assault weapons ban and "gun safety" features reviled in the gun rights community, such as the detachable magazine rules and loaded chamber indicator.

"I think we got more than we expected," Paredes said of the ruling. "Not quite as much as we'd hoped, but it really changes the perspective on laws being passed. We think it opens the door for use to bring back a lot of our rights. We were way off in left field here in California."

Irwin Nowick, a Senate Rules staffer credited with writing much of the legal code Paredes wants to get rid off, said the ruling will have little direct effect on state laws.

"You have the right to keep a registered handgun on your own property," Nowick said. "Big deal. They endorsed the California system of registration."

Nowick said that the legal challenges will either be less than some expect, or will fizzle out. Lawsuits take money, he said, noting that the Heller case was bankrolled by Bob Levy. A wealthy former Cato Institute fellow, Levy has already said that he has no plans to fund further gun lawsuits.

Still, gun control groups are also getting ready for what they say will likely be an onslaught of legal challenges to gun laws. Juliet Leftwich, senior counsel at the San Francisco-based Legal Community Against Violence, said they are planning on sending out an appeal next week to their hundreds of member attorneys to find those who are willing to work pro bono to defend gun laws. Dozens have already said they will contribute their time.

She said she's confident that when smoke clears, little will have changed. "I would think that most of our existing state laws are on firm legal ground," Leftwich said. She added, "Which of course isn't the say that the gun lobby isn't going to file suit challenging these laws."

The Heller decision could also have implications for a pair of gun bills currently in the state legislature. AB 2062 from Assemblyman Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, D-Los Angeles, would place new restrictions and reporting requirements on ammunition sales. SB 327 from Senator Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would create stronger firearms registration rules. Both concepts would likely face 2nd Amendment challenges if they become law.

Nowick said that the decision actually endorsed De Leon's bill because it noted that it is acceptable to restrict sales to the group's the bill targets, such as felons and the mentally ill. SB 327, he said, actually provides protections to gun owners by preventing them from being listed as the registered owner of a gun they never actually took possession of and is not opposed by the NRA.

Another potentially important suit currently before the courts is the Nordyke vs. King gun show case. This is a challenge to Alameda County's ban on gun shows on county property that has gone through numerous courts since 1996. It currently sits in front of the federal 9th Circuit for the second time.

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