California Justices Uphold State's Assault Weapons Ban
29 June 2000
SAN FRANCISCO--The California Supreme Court on
Thursday upheld the state's 1989 assault weapons ban, the first
such prohibition of semiautomatic assault weapons in the nation.
The ruling, which overturned a lower court decision, will reduce
the number of assault weapons allowed in California and make it
easier for the attorney general to restrict newer varieties of the
The strongest weapons ban in the nation, the law bars about 75
models of firearms and allows judges to add new ones to the list as
makers design modifications. A Court of Appeal in Sacramento
decided two years ago that the add-on provision violated
separation of powers between the Legislature and the judiciary.
But none of the state's seven high court justices agreed. "For
good or ill," wrote Justice Janice Rogers Brown for the court, "the
Legislature stood up and was counted on this issue, one of the
most contentious in modern society."
State lawmakers approved the ban six months after a gunman
with an AK-47 sprayed bullets into a Stockton school playground,
killing five children and wounding 29 others and a teacher. Several
other states followed California's lead, using the state's law as a
model for weapons bans.
Because the lower court had struck down key provisions of the
law, the Legislature last year passed new restrictions aimed at
prohibiting weapons according to their characteristics, rather than
by name and model.
With Thursday's court ruling, a wide ban of assault weapons is
now in place. Courts will be able to add new weapons to the
banned list at the behest of the attorney general.
"This gives the attorney general the authority to just keep
creating an ever-expanding list of firearms . . . that he deems to be
illegal assault weapons," complained Chuck Michel, a lawyer for a
group of gun collectors and a gun manufacturer who challenged the
The ruling was the first of a handful of gun cases the high court
has agreed to review, and supporters of gun control hailed it as a
Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer said that at least 120 types of
weapons, known as AR-15 or AK series weapons, will be added
to the banned list as a result of Thursday's ruling.
The court decision "represents a major victory for gun safety
and public safety in California," Lockyer said.
If the court had
ruled against the law, "it would have opened a huge gun
trafficking loophole," said Luis Tolley, western director of
Handgun Control, the largest gun control group in the country.
"The tragedy is that, for 10 years, illegal copycat assault
weapons, like the TEC-DC-9 and the Colt Sporter, flooded
California streets because the gun lobby's phony legal arguments
prevented this law from being enforced," Tolley said.
The California Supreme Court examined three constitutional
challenges to the gun law: whether it violated equal protection
guarantees because it banned some weapons and left similar guns
untouched; whether it improperly delegated legislative authority to
the courts; and whether it violated due process rights because it
was vague about which guns were banned.
The court rejected each of those challenges in an opinion
written by Brown and signed by Chief Justice Ronald M. George
and Justices Marvin Baxter, Kathryn Mickle Werdegar and Ming
Justice Stanley Mosk supported the court's conclusions but
wrote a separate opinion because he disagreed with some of
Brown's legal analysis. Werdegar also joined Mosk's opinion.
Justice Joyce Kennard filed the only dissent--solely on the
equal protection challenge. She said the plaintiffs should be given
the opportunity to prove their claims that the law banned some
weapons while leaving nearly identical guns unregulated.
"Californians who are divided on the need for strict gun control
are generally united in supporting the constitutional principle of
equal protection--that the government should treat similar cases
alike, free of arbitrary or invidious distinctions," Kennard wrote.
In her opinion for the court majority, Brown strongly rejected
any suggestion that the state Constitution protects the rights of
Californians to own weapons.
"No mention is made [in the state Constitution] of a right to
bear arms," Brown wrote.
The court majority also rejected the challenge that the law was
invalid because it failed to ban all similar weapons.
"Doubtless, 10 years after Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons
Control Act became law in California, many semiautomatic
weapons potentially classifiable as assault weapons remain on the
market here," Brown wrote.
"That may or may not be regrettable, depending upon one's
view of this highly charged public policy question," Brown added,
"but it does not amount to a constitutionally fatal flaw."
The court defended the law's provision that allows the attorney
general to ask Superior Courts to add new weapons to the
outlawed list. The role of courts in this is "a very narrow,
essentially adjudicatory one," Brown said.
Gun owners, however, found some comfort in the court's
comments on the due process challenge. Although the court
rejected arguments that the law was too vague, the majority also
indicated that the state has responsibility for ensuring that owners
know which guns are banned.
If a Superior Court decides a certain weapon is an assault
weapon, then the attorney general must within 90 days add it to
the banned list, the court said.
"Concerned citizens need not struggle with the question
whether, for example, a particular firearm is identical to one of the
listed assault weapons except for slight modifications," Brown
wrote. "The citizens may simply consult the amended list."
Michel, the lawyer for the gun owners, said dozens of
Californians have become "accidental felons" because they
possessed guns they did not know were banned.
"If there is any silver lining in this decision, it is that the
confusion about what is and what is not an assault weapon is now
thrown squarely into the attorney general's lap," Michel said.
He said gun supporters will eventually file another lawsuit to
challenge the law on other grounds. They also are considering
appealing Thursday's decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.
"We're not giving up," Michel said.