Judge Blocks California’s ‘Abnormally Dangerous’ Gun Law

Efthymis Oraiopoulos
By Efthymis Oraiopoulos
February 26, 2024California
Judge Blocks California’s ‘Abnormally Dangerous’ Gun Law
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks during the Clinton Global Initiative September 2023 Meeting at New York Hilton Midtown in New York, on Sept. 18, 2023. (Noam Galai/Getty Images for Clinton Global Initiative)

A federal judge found California’s “abnormally dangerous guns” law unconstitutional in one part after a lawsuit from a gun industry association.

San Diego District Judge Andrew Schopler, a President Joe Biden appointee, blocked California’s attorney general from enforcing a new law that allows residents and the state and local governments to sue members of the firearms industry that manufacture or sell “abnormally dangerous” guns.

It is the first ruling in a case challenging the constitutionality of California’s Firearm Industry Responsibility Act.

The law was enacted shortly after the conservative-majority U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in June 2022 concerning the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment that significantly expanded gun rights.

California Governor Gavin Newsom, in signing the new state firearms restrictions into law in July 2022, called them necessary to ensure makers of deadly firearms could be held accountable in court and could “no longer hide from the mass destruction that they have caused.”

But in a lawsuit filed in May, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) argued California’s restrictions violated several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the Second Amendment, which protects the right to keep and bear arms.

Mr. Schopler did not address the Second Amendment issue in the Feb. 21 ruling. Instead, he found the law likely violated the Constitution’s so-called dormant Commerce Clause, which restricts states from interfering with interstate commerce.

For example, he said, a Tennessee company that manufactures guns that are legal in its state but that meet California’s definition of “abnormally dangerous” could still face liability under the law even if its products were shipped to nearby Arizona and used later to commit a crime in California.

“Because the ‘abnormally dangerous’ firearm rule reaches beyond California’s borders and directly regulates out-of-state commercial transactions, it likely runs afoul of the dormant Commerce Clause,” Mr. Schopler wrote.

He issued a preliminary injunction barring California Attorney General Rob Bonta from suing NSSF’s members while the lawsuit moves forward.

Lawrence Keane, the NSSF’s general counsel, welcomed the ruling. The law “attempts to use the real threat of liability on commerce beyond California’s border and impose its policy choices on other states,” he said.

Daniel Villasenor, a spokesman for Governor Newsom, said the governor was conferring with Mr. Bonta regarding the next steps. He noted the judge also dismissed part of NSSF’s lawsuit challenging a requirement that industry participants, including gun stores, work to prevent unlawful transactions and other violations of law.

“This means bad actors can still be held accountable for harms their products cause,” Mr. Villasenor said in a statement.

Gun Legislation

Delaware and New Jersey already have laws that allow for suing a gun manufacturer if a crime is committed with one of its guns.

The two states were also sued by NSSF, with the group arguing that both states have “unconstitutionally vague” laws designed to hold the manufacturers and sellers of weapons liable for criminal actions that take place after weapons are legally sold.

In June, Delaware Gov. John Carney signed into law Senate Bill 302, which allows the state to sue the members of the firearms industry if the making, selling, and marketing of their products “contributes” to “public nuisance” or the endangerment of “health, safety, peace, comfort, or convenience” of the public.

On top of that, the law allows victims of crimes that involve guns to sue industry members for failing to implement “reasonable procedures, safeguards, and business practices” to prevent straw purchases or theft. It doesn’t specify whether plaintiffs must prove that such failure was intentionally done to cause harm.

Similarly, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy signed Assembly Bill 1765 in July, a measure of the same nature. The bill’s passage led to the creation of a new office dedicated to bringing legal actions against gunmakers and sellers for alleged “public nuisance” caused by third-party criminal actions.

“These state laws are at odds with bedrock principles of American law, which does not hold manufacturers and sellers legally responsible for the actions of criminals and remote third parties over whom the manufacturer and seller have no control when they misuse lawfully sold products, NSSF said.

President Joe Biden is also against the law granting legal immunity to gun manufacturers and sellers in the case a crime is committed with one of their guns.

California Insurance Bill

Another bill introduced in California requires homeowner and renter insurance providers to collect information from insurance applicants on whether they have firearms and how they are stored.

The bill states that the information that insurers share with the California government “shall not contain any identifying information,” such as names, addresses, and telephone numbers.

It is not clear what purpose this proposed legislation has given that California has a gun owner registration law.

Reuters and Bill Pan contributed to this report.

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