A federal judge struck down a California gun control law this week. The reaction, or lack thereof, among gun control advocates was noticeable.
On Monday, Judge Cormac J. Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, issued a preliminary injunction against significant provisions of California’s “Unsafe Handgun Act.” He ruled that the law’s loaded chamber indicator, magazine disconnect safety, and microstamping requirements—which together functionally outlawed the sale of new handguns starting in 2013—lacked compelling historical analogues and were thus unconstitutional.
“Californians have the constitutional right to acquire and use state-of-the-art handguns to protect themselves,” Judge Carney wrote in his opinion. “They should not be forced to settle for decade-old models of handguns to ensure that they remain safe inside or outside the home.”
Gun-rights activists, particularly those in California, were ecstatic following the decision.
“For decades, this ‘roster’ law has deprived law-abiding citizens of the right to choose a handgun appropriate for their individual needs,” Chuck Michel, California Rifle and Pistol Association president, told The Reload. “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.”
But with that ecstasy among gun-rights supporters, one would expect a Newtonian equal and opposite reaction from those on the gun control side of the advocacy world. Instead, there have only been crickets.
None of the three major U.S. gun control organizations—Everytown, Giffords, and Brady—have thus far issued a public statement on the ruling. Neither have each of the groups’ respective leaders in an individual capacity. That’s a significant departure from the groups’ usual course of action following major gun rulings.
Even California Governor Gavin Newsom (D.), never one to shy away from issuing a public tongue-lashing to judges who strike down gun laws, including when they happen in other parts of the country, has been silent.
Only California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.), whose office was tasked with defending the law in court, released a public statement in response to the injunction. And even his response was relatively tepid.
“The fact of the matter is, California’s gun safety laws save lives, and California’s Unsafe Handgun Act is no exception,” he said. “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.”
That last bit of Bonta’s statement could explain why gun-control advocates have chosen not to voice their outrage at this latest ruling. Because Judge Carney stayed his ruling for two weeks to allow the state a chance to appeal, perhaps some of the shock of the outcome was forestalled.
But that seems unlikely, given that it has never been enough to avoid public condemnation in other gun rulings in the past. Consider Federal Judge Roger Benitez’s 2021 ruling striking down California’s “assault weapon ban.” Benitez stayed that decision for 30 days to allow time for a state appeal. Nevertheless, both Bonta and Newsom were forceful in their condemnation.
“Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed,” Bonta said in a news release at the time. “There is no sound basis in law, fact, or common sense for equating assault rifles with Swiss Army knives — especially on Gun Violence Awareness Day and after the recent shootings in our own California communities.”
“Overturning CA’s assault weapon ban and comparing an AR-15 to a SWISS ARMY KNIFE is a disgusting slap in the face to those who have lost loved ones to gun violence,” Newsom tweeted. “This is a direct threat to public safety and innocent Californians. We won’t stand for it.”
Newsom went even further in that instance, calling into question Judge Benitez’s character by suggesting he is a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association.”
Yet, in this instance, with another Bush-appointed judge having blocked California’s gun laws, the same rhetoric has not materialized. That may signal the law’s supporters recognize the Unsafe Handgun Act is particularly vulnerable in court and the court of public opinion. It has been uniquely burdensome on gun owners, even by California’s standards. And that was before the Supreme Court added a new level of scrutiny to gun-control laws in its Bruen decision.
Since 2013, there have been zero new handguns approved to the roster due to the inability of gunmakers to comply with an as-of-yet infeasible technology like microstamping. Meanwhile, handguns have continued to be removed from the roster for various reasons, resulting in an ever-diminishing supply of legal handguns for civilians to purchase. The Bruen test aside, a slow-moving march toward banning legal handgun sales was eventually bound for trouble in court.
The state may realize that the law was not advancing any public safety goals, given that it contained numerous exceptions for government officials to purchase and use “unsafe” handguns as they saw fit. As Judge Carney’s ruling pointed out, even California’s own witness in the lawsuit testified that he “uses an Off-Roster duty handgun” without any of the enjoined safety features in his job as a law enforcement officer, as do most other departments in the state.
It’s entirely possible that the law was so uniquely unreasonable that even gun-control advocates felt they shouldn’t make too much noise about seeing it struck down. That’s not to say that they agree with the outcome. Indeed, California may well appeal the decision in the coming days (though Bonta was notably non-committal in his statement). But gun-control advocates’ silence over the injunction speaks volumes about the politics of the case.