Challenge to California City’s Gun Restriction Heads to 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Nov 17, 2014

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Only weeks after California gun sellers filed a federal lawsuit against a state law that prohibits the display of firearms in view of the public, gun-rights activists in the state have gained another federal review by challenging a law in Sunnyvale that limits the size of legal gun magazines to 10 rounds.  A coalition of gun supporters, highlighted by the National Rifle Association (NRA), argue that the California town’s law violates the constitution, and this week the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case.

Sunnyvale, California Limits Gun Magazine Size

Last year, residents of Sunnyvale, a California city of 146,000 located in Silicon Valley, approved ballot “Measure C” and enacted four new restrictions on gun ownership.  Standing out among the four was the prohibition on gun magazines that contained more than 10 rounds of ammunition, a law that limits gun sellers and requires current gun owners to get rid of all non-compliant magazines.  California state law has made illegal the manufacture and sale of magazines with more than 10 rounds, but after the passage of Measure C, Sunnyvale takes the issue a step further by making even the possession of a gun magazine that contains more than 10 rounds a crime.

With California’s state law only banning municipalities from passing gun legislation that addresses licensing or registration of firearms, Sunnyvale’s magazine restriction is clearly within the permissible sphere of influence afforded municipalities.  Questions arise, however, over whether or not the nature of the restriction violates the Second Amendment’s Right to Bear Arms by effectively limiting gun ownership to 10-magazine weaponry. 

Legal Challenge to Gun Magazine Restriction

The NRA-led gun-rights coalition challenging the Sunnyvale magazine law allege that the municipality has overextended its permissible reach by making ownership of magazines with more than 10 rounds a crime.  Arguing that the law violates the Right to Bear Arms by restricting what types of guns, and gun magazines, homeowners can possess, the gun-rights challengers are asking the federal judiciary to find the legislation unconstitutional.  Insisting that Americans own such weapons to protect “hearth and home,” the opponents of Sunnyvale’s law are hoping that the 9th Circuit clarifies the scope of the 2nd Amendment and, in doing so, recognizes the right to own 10 round magazines, which make up more than ½ of the ammunition magazines currently in distribution.

Sunnyvale officials, and supporters of increased gun restriction, disagree and argue that weapons that hold more than 10 rounds are unnecessary for home defense.  Citing studies that show large-capacity magazines are not needed for self-defense because “defenders seldom fire more than two shots,” defenders of Measure C believe that the restriction is permissible under a 2nd Amendment analysis.  Pointing to use of large-capacity magazines in mass shootings such as the Newtown, Connecticut tragedy in 2012, Sunnyvale officials claim that the restriction is designed to promote safety while still allowing homeowners the right to use firearms in self-defense.

Lower Court Upholds Sunnyvale Law

Along its path to the 9th Circuit, Sunnyvale’s Measure C successfully withstood a challenge in lower federal court.  Saying the burden placed on 2nd Amendment rights was “relatively light,” Judge Ronald M. Whyte wrote, “The Sunnyvale law passes intermediate scrutiny, as the court—without making a determination as to the law’s likely efficacy—credits Sunnyvale’s voluminous evidence that the ordinance is substantially tailored to the compelling government interest of public safety.”  Because Sunnyvale was able to point to safety concerns addressed by the law and show that homeowner defense did not require large-capacity magazines, the challenge from the gun-rights coalition fell short.

On appeal, the challengers maintained that citizens have a 2nd Amendment right to own magazines with more than 10 rounds, and Sunnyvale’s justification for Measure C does not warrant infringement on constitutional protections afforded firearm possession.  With other California cities, including San Francisco, considering similar laws, the 9th Circuit case regarding the constitutionality of Sunnyvale’s magazine restriction ordinance will present a compelling, and impactful, decision on the extent of gun ownership rights in America.

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