California has appealed a federal judge’s ruling against its pistol restrictions, but it isn’t asking to keep one aspect of its law in effect as the case plays out.
On Monday, California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) asked the Ninth Circuit to review a lower court ruling blocking the state’s “Unsafe Handgun Act.” The appeal also requests an emergency stay on the part of the decision that affects the requirement new handgun models be equipped with a loaded chamber indicator and magazine disconnect safety. However, it did not ask the court to reinstate the microstamping requirement.
“California’s commonsense gun safety laws save lives, and the Unsafe Handgun Act is no exception,” Bonta said in a statement. “Accidental shootings are preventable.”
The retreat on microstamping represents a rare concession from California, which has among the strictest gun laws in the country and has long faced legal challenges over them. It may reflect the state’s top lawyers attempting to adapt to the shifting legal landscape surrounding gun restrictions in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2022 New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen ruling. As the state defends itself against an ever-increasing collection of gun-rights suits, it may give up on some of its most aggressive restrictions.
In 2007, the state began requiring all new handgun models to incorporate a loaded chamber indicator and magazine disconnect safety. In 2013, it began requiring all new models to feature microstamping technology, which would imprint a traceable serial number on the casing of every round fired from the gun, after declaring it feasible. However, the market has disagreed. No gun maker anywhere in the world has ever produced a production pistol that incorporates microstamping, and the gun industry has argued it is impossible to do so.
Federal District Judge Cormac J. Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, agreed with the industry’s assessment in a ruling earlier this month, calling the technology “simply not commercially available or even feasible to implement on a mass scale.” He ruled the three requirements have combined to effectively choke off the market for modern handguns in California.
“These regulations are having a devastating impact on Californians’ ability to acquire and use new, state-of-the-art handguns,” Judge Carney wrote in his preliminary injunction for Boland v. Bonta. “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.”
Alexander A. Frank, a lawyer representing the California Rifle and Pistol Association (CRPA) in the case, said the state’s decision not to try and keep the microstamping requirement intact is significant.
“California’s decision to forego asking the 9th Circuit to stay the microstamping provision, but to maintain the stay as to the [loaded chamber indicator] and [magazine disconnect safety] requirements, seems to indicate that even the DOJ knows the jig is up for microstamping,” Frank told The Reload. “While that is great news, the truth is that California’s argument that the [loaded chamber indicator] and [magazine disconnect safety] requirements should remain operative pending the appeal has no legal leg to stand on either.”
Despite the name, police are exempted from the “Unsafe Handgun Act” requirements and are allowed to resell pistols after using them. That has created a grey market for modern handguns in the state. But, while there are a few legal ways to obtain pistols that are not on the approved handgun roster, the law has left Californians with relatively few handguns they can buy from licensed dealers. Chuck Michel, CRPA president, told The Reload that only around 200 of the thousands of handgun models currently available for sale around the country are legal in California. That’s something Judge Carney found unacceptable.
“Californians have the constitutional right to acquire and use state-of-the-art handguns to protect themselves,” Judge Carney said. “They should not be forced to settle for decade-old models of handguns to ensure that they remain safe inside or outside the home.”
Attorney General Bonta puts the number higher at 800, though that count includes multiple variants of the same pistol with minor changes such as the gun’s color. His office argued allowing more guns onto the market without the features required by the law would lead to more accidental shootings.
“Since the UHA went into effect in 2001, accidental shootings have decreased. If the entirety of the law were ultimately overturned, it can be expected that the opposite outcome would occur,” he said in a statement. “The rate of accidental shooting deaths in California decreased by two-thirds between 2014 and 2018, after chamber load indicators and magazine disconnect mechanisms were required for new models added to the Roster— compared to 1996 to 2000 — before they were required, with a 13.4 percent decrease in self-inflicted injuries and a 12.7 percent decrease in unintentional injuries during this time period, as cited by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the law.”
However, numbers released by his office show only 32 of the 800 models on the current roster actually include a loaded chamber indicator and magazine disconnect safety. The rest of the pistols on the list were developed before the requirements were put in place but were grandfathered onto the current roster.