The Golden State’s attempt to kick gun shows off public grounds has been blocked.
On Monday, US District Judge John W. Holcomb issued a preliminary injunction stopping California from enforcing its ban. He found a pair of laws the state passed likely infringed on the First and Second Amendment rights of Californians.
“Plaintiffs argue that the statutes at issue infringe both their First Amendment freedom-of-speech rights in a public forum and their Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms,” Judge Holcomb wrote in B&L Productions v. Newsom. “After reviewing the parties’ extensive briefing and conducting a hearing on the motion, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs have established that they are likely to succeed on the merits of their constitutional claims and that they have satisfied the other requirements for injunctive relief.”
The California Rifle and Pistol Association, which joined several other gun-rights groups and a gun show production company in challenging the laws, said the ruling represented a key victory for gun owners who live in a state with some of the strictest gun laws and politicians most hostile to gun ownership.
“They want to demonize gun owners, stigmatize gun ownership, and eliminate all the ways that they can for gun owners to get together and congregate, talk about gun safety, gun politics, collecting guns, anything to do with the gun culture,” Chuck Michel, president of the group, told The Reload. “So, they make it impossible to have gun shows. They make it as difficult as possible to open a gun store. They make it difficult to operate a gun range. All these forums for exercising your Second Amendment rights or discussing them; they want to shut them down because then people will lose interest. So, that’s what this is. It’s culturecide.”
The decision is another legal victory for California gun-rights activists in the wake of the Supreme Court’s landmark 2022 decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which set a higher standard for determining whether a gun law was compatible with the Second Amendment. California’s gun laws, already a center for legal fights in the years leading up to Bruen, have seen an even greater focus than most because they are often among the strictest in the nation. The state’s so-called assault weapons ban, magazine capacity limits, handgun restrictions, and attempt to discourage lawsuits against its gun laws have all lost in court since the SCOTUS ruling–though the state has appealed many of those decisions.
California lawmakers have responded to the series of losses primarily by doubling down on constitutionally-questionable legislation and attacking the courts.
Governor Gavin Newsom (D.), who is also attempting to organize a constitutional convention to partially repeal the Second Amendment, has lobbed personal attacks at US District Judge Rodger Benitez over several of the judge’s rulings against the state’s gun laws. He labeled Benitez “an extremist, right-wing zealot with no regard to human life” after the judge blocked the state’s magazine limit.
“Wake up, America,” he tweeted in September. “Our gun safety laws will continue to be thrown out by NRA-owned federal judges until we pass a Constitutional Amendment to protect our kids and end the gun violence epidemic in America.”
Newsom attacked Judge Holcomb along the same lines on Tuesday.
“Yet again, an extremist Trump-appointed judge has prioritized the bidding of the gun lobby over common sense,” Governor Newsom told The Reload. “California will continue to defend our life-saving laws.”
Michel mocked the Governor’s attacks on the judiciary.
“Newsom has his list of judges that he wants to mischaracterize as ideologues,” he told The Reload. “This is another judge that gets it right. So, I guess he’s going to have a long list of judges to blame for his own failures.”
Judge Holcomb found the laws targeted gun shows in particular and amounted to illegal viewpoint discrimination by baring events where people negotiated by purchase firearms–the physical sale of which happens after the show due to California’s 10-day waiting period. He repeatedly cited statements by California lawmakers as evidence for his conclusions.
“[T]he Court finds sufficient evidence that SB 264 and SB 915 have a viewpoint-discriminatory purpose,” he wrote. “Legislative history shows that the goal of the two statutes is to end gun shows in California, and, while the opinions and statements of legislators are not dispositive of viewpoint discrimination… those statements are circumstantial evidence that the statutes disfavor the lawful commercial speech of firearm vendors.”
He also tested the restrictions against the Bruen standard, which requires a modern regulation to be rooted in American tradition dating back to the Founding Era. He again cited lawmakers’ statements when concluding the gun show ban had no historical basis.
“No law that Defendants cite permitted the state arbitrarily to ban firearm sales in disfavored forums, nor did those laws discriminate between gun vendors based upon whether the sales took place on public or private land,” Judge Holcomb wrote. “Statements by the challenged bills’ author highlight the difficulty that Defendants face in finding a historical analog; California State Senator Min declared that ‘California will become the first in the nation to enact a total ban statewide’ on gun shows.”
State Senator Dave Min (D.) said he was “shocked” by the injunction. He argued, “It effectively tells the state of California we MUST host gun shows on state property, even after we have clearly and democratically determined we do not want these.”
“What’s next?” he tweeted. “Are we going to be forced to host pornography shows or book burning festivals (also constitutionally protected activities) on county fairgrounds?”
Judge Holcomb said the state’s attempts to defend Min’s laws relied primarily on “general laws in which governments regulated firearm-related possession and trade” and the argument that there’s no historical right to conduct gun deals on public land. He rejected those arguments because they did not address the question of whether the government had historically restricted gun sales in the same way.
“Defendants attempt to flip Bruen on its head by asserting that ‘there is no historical right under the Second Amendment to sell firearms and related products on state property,'” he wrote. “While that may be true, government defendants may not shift the burden to plaintiffs under Bruen when attempting to identify historical analogs for firearm regulations. Instead, it is the state that bears the burden of identifying a historical analog to its proposed firearm regulation. Here, Defendants fail to satisfy that burden.”
The California Rifle and Pistol Association was joined in the suit by the Second Amendment Foundation, Asian Pacific American Gun Owners, Gun Owners of California, and the Second Amendment Law Center as well as gun show organizers B&L Productions and Crossroads of the West.
“This a huge victory for both the First and Second Amendments,” Alan Gottlieb, the Second Amendment Foundation’s Executive Vice President, said in a statement. “We believe the court has sent a clear message to the State of California, Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta that the constitution trumps their personal animus toward gun owners and the Second Amendment.”
Judge Holcomb also denied a stay requested by Attorney General Bonta.
“[P]laintiffs—not Defendants—have shown a likelihood of success on the merits of Plaintiffs’ constitutional claims. Defendants also have not demonstrated irreparable injury. Although crimes committed with illegal firearms are unquestionably a serious concern, Defendants have not shown that there is an appreciably higher risk of illegal gun sales occurring at gun shows than there is at brick-and-mortar stores in California.”
That means the ruling goes into effect immediately. However, it will likely take months to organize new gun shows on state grounds. Bonta, who did not respond to a request for comment, may request a stay on appeal before any new shows can actually be held.
UPDATE 10-23-2023 8:26 PM EASTERN: This piece has been updated to include comment from Governor Newsom.