Gun-rights advocates were handed a victory in federal court on Thursday.
A three-judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a California county’s COVID-related order shuttering gun stores and ranges was unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.
“The Orders therefore wholly prevented law-abiding citizens in the County from realizing their right to keep and bear arms, both by prohibiting access to acquiring any firearm and ammunition, and barring practice at firing ranges with any firearms already owned,” Judge Lawrence VanDyke wrote in his majority opinion. “These blanket prohibitions on access and practice clearly burden conduct protected by the Second Amendment and fail under both strict and intermediate scrutiny.”
The decision marks the latest judicial rebuke of COVID-era restrictions on gun rights. Cities and localities across the country have been forced to reopen ranges and licensing processes after legal challenges from gun rights advocates.
It is also notable for its ruling in favor of access to firearms in a circuit critics have said is overly permissive of gun restrictions. Judge VanDyke, one of those critics who chastised the court in its ruling upholding California’s magazine ban, wrote a separate concurring opinion predicting that this latest decision would be challenged by the full appeals court.
“I’m not a prophet, but since this panel just enforced the Second Amendment, and this is the Ninth Circuit, this ruling will almost certainly face an en banc challenge,” he wrote. “This prediction follows from the fact that this is always what happens when a three-judge panel upholds the Second Amendment in this circuit.”
Ventura County said it is, indeed, considering an appeal to the full court.
“The County believes the case was correctly decided at the District Court level and is disappointed with the three-judge panel’s decision,” Ashley Bautista, a public information officer for the county executive office, told The Reload. “We are still reviewing the decision issued today and evaluating our options and next steps.”
Judge VanDyke noted that the orders could not be justified under COVID mitigation measures because the county allowed other businesses to remain open. He said there was no evidence that gun stores posed a greater health risk than other businesses allowed to operate under the orders.
“The Orders allowed ‘essential’ businesses like bicycle repair shops and hardware stores to remain open but forced venues that provide access to core fundamental liberties—in this case, Second Amendment rights—to close,” he said. “There is nothing in the record suggesting that gun shops, ammunition shops, or firing ranges posed a higher risk of spreading COVID than, say, bicycle shops or hardware stores.”
The litigation stems from a March 2020 Ventura County stay-at-home order. The order mandated that residents remain inside their homes, under the threat of a misdemeanor, with narrow exceptions for “essential activities.” Gun stores and ranges were not considered “essential” under the order.
A coalition of gun rights groups including the Firearms Policy Coalition (FPC), Second Amendment Foundation, and California Gun Rights Foundation challenged the order. Adam Kraut, FPC’s vice president of programs, celebrated the court’s decision.
“When authoritarian governments used COVID as an excuse to attack Second Amendment rights, FPC Law immediately went to work throughout the country, including through these successful cases,” he said in a release on Thursday. “Today’s opinions from the Ninth Circuit confirm our claims that the COVID closures of gun stores and firing ranges violated the Second Amendment rights of Californians.”