California can’t ban residents from buying modern handguns.
That’s the ruling handed down by Federal District Judge Cormac J. Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, on Monday. He found California’s requirement that all new pistols sold in the state include a series of uncommon or even theoretical safety devices is unconstitutional. He ruled the regulation, which has resulted in no new handgun models being sold to civilians in nearly a decade, violates the Second Amendment.
“Californians have the constitutional right to acquire and use state-of-the-art handguns to protect themselves,” Judge Carney wrote in his preliminary injunction for Boland v. Bonta. “They should not be forced to settle for decade-old models of handguns to ensure that they remain safe inside or outside the home.”
The decision is the latest blow to California’s strict gun-control laws in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2022 opinion in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which set a new standard for reviewing gun laws. Late last year, a federal judge also blocked the state’s attempt to discourage legal challenges to its restrictions. Many of the state’s other high-profile gun restrictions are similarly embroiled in ongoing litigation, and Monday’s ruling may signal they may face a tough climb to clear the bar set by the Supreme Court.
The also ruling paves the way for law-abiding Californians to access new pistol models for the first time in a long time.
California passed the Unsafe Handgun Act (UHA) in 2001. It initially barred the sale of any new pistol models that didn’t include a loaded chamber indicator or magazine disconnect safety. However, in 2013 the state expanded the requirements to include so-called microstamping technology. In theory, microstamping would enable a gun to leave identifiable marks on every spent casing with the goal of helping police solve crimes. However, there has never been a production gun in the world that has implemented the theoretical technology.
The practical effect of adding the requirement, which a handful of other states are now considering implementing as well, was a complete ban on the sale of all handgun models created after 2013. Outside of police officers, who are not subject to the handgun roster restrictions despite California deeming guns outside of it “unsafe,” Californians have been mostly limited to buying pistols first introduced to the market more than 15 years ago.
“These regulations are having a devastating impact on Californians’ ability to acquire and use new, state-of-the-art handguns,” Judge Cormac wrote. “Since 2007, when the [loaded chamber indicator] and [magazine disconnect safety] requirements were introduced, very few new handguns have been introduced for sale in California with those features. Since 2013, when the microstamping requirement was introduced, not a single new semiautomatic handgun has been approved for sale in California.”
Plaintiffs argued the handgun restrictions infringe on their Second Amendment rights and are unlike any regulation from the founding era, which is the key measure for constitutionality under Bruen. California argued the restrictions don’t directly implicate the Second Amendment because they don’t completely ban the ownership of all handguns, just those it considers “unsafe.” Judge Cormac found Bruen doesn’t require a total ban for a gun regulation to impact gun rights. He further rejected attempts to justify the restrictions by balancing their effect on gun owners with the state’s claims they prevent accidental shootings or help law enforcement.
“The Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear arms for self defense,” Judge Cormac said. “That right is so fundamental that to regulate conduct covered by the Second Amendment’s plain text, the government must show more than that the regulation promotes an important interest like reducing accidental discharges or solving crime. Rather, to be constitutional, regulations of Second Amendment rights must be ‘consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.'”
California argued its law had several historical analogues implementing gun restrictions aimed at preventing accidents or tracking firearms that date back to the founding era. The first was “proving” laws that required inspectors to verify, or “prove,” that barrels were adequately constructed. The second dealt with regulations on storing gunpowder as a precaution against accidental fires. It also cited a collection of historical rules surrounding where and how guns could be sold as evidence for a tradition of serial numbers or other tracking marks.
Judge Cormac was unconvinced by the examples California cited. He said proving laws were meant to ensure a gun operated as advertised, not require the maker to implement new safety features, and he said the gunpowder regulations were about preventing accidental building fires through poor storage rather than preventing negligent gunshots by adding new mechanisms to the firearms. Additionally, he argued the microstamping technology was not similar to serial numbering or other gun sales regulations because it imposed a much heavier burden on gun makers, one he argued was “simply not commercially available or even feasible to implement on a mass scale.”
Ultimately, he ruled the “how and why these regulations burden a law-abiding citizen’s right to armed self-defense are too different to pass constitutional muster.”
“Because enforcing those requirements implicates the plain text of the Second Amendment, and the government fails to point to any well-established historical analogues that are consistent with them, those requirements are unconstitutional and their enforcement must be preliminarily enjoined,” he ruled.
The California Rifle and Pistol Association (CRPA), one of the plaintiffs in the case, celebrated the decision as a win for gun owners in the state.
“For decades, this ‘roster’ law has deprived law-abiding citizens of the right to choose a handgun appropriate for their individual needs,” Chuck Michel, CRPA president, told The Reload. “The loaded chamber indicator, magazine disconnect, and microstamping requirements were difficult or impossible to satisfy, so the number of different models of approved handguns available to buy dropped to barely 200. If we can hold on to this great Second Amendment win, people will be able to choose from among thousands of the latest, greatest, and safest handguns made today.”
The group said it was optimistic about what the ruling meant for the prospects of the other gun laws it has challenged.
“[CRPA] won a big victory today,” Kostas Moros, one of the group’s lawyers who helped argue the case, said on social media. “We also have more likely wins to come soon on magazine capacity restrictions and ammo background checks, and we are fighting every day against counties and cities that are obstructing CCW permit issuance.”
The preliminary injunction is set to go into effect in two weeks. California can appeal the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals during that time and seek a stay in order to continue enforcing its restrictions as the case moves forward.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) said he hasn’t yet decided on whether or not to appeal. However, he noted the law remains in effect for the moment, and certain aspects of it, such as the drop safety and independent quality testing, weren’t implicated by the ruling.
“The fact of the matter is, California’s gun safety laws save lives, and California’s Unsafe Handgun Act is no exception,” Bonta said in a statement. “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.”
UPDATE 3-20-2023 8:16 PM EASTERN: This piece has been updated with further details from Judge Carney’s ruling and comment from CRPA.