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California Politics: A final big gun bill

Immediately after the Supreme Court on June 23 ruled against restrictive concealed carry laws in New York, California and other blue states, Democratic leaders in Sacramento announced that they already had a contingency plan.

Waiting in the wings of the Capitol was Senate Bill 918, legislation that would strengthen restrictions for carrying a weapon in public that Gov. Gavin Newsom, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta and state Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) said fell within the high court’s legal boundaries.

“While this reckless decision erases a commonsense gun safety law that existed for decades, California anticipated this moment. Our administration has been working closely with the attorney general and the Legislature for months,” Newsom wrote in a statement after the court published its decision.

Proponents of SB 918 see it as the best opportunity to maintain strict concealed carry rules despite a 6-3 conservative majority in the Supreme Court that interprets the 2nd Amendment in a way that favors firearm owners and gun rights groups.

“We are going to do what we can do and be as expansive as we can under the guidance of the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court,” Portantino said.

A victory for gun owners

At the center of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. vs. Bruen case was whether “may issue” laws — which allow licensing authorities broad discretion to deny concealed carry applications — are constitutional.

Writing for the court, Justice Clarence Thomas argued that they are not.

Specifically, New York’s law required residents to demonstrate “proper cause” for needing to carry a concealed weapon outside the home. California similarly mandated “good cause” for approval, which licensing authorities — namely sheriffs’ departments — applied to varying degrees.

Thomas wrote that the Constitution protects “an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home,” and denounced those discretionary restrictions as a violation of that freedom.

Gun rights groups across the country celebrated the decision. The National Rifle Assn. called it “the most significant 2nd Amendment ruling in more than a decade.”

In California, Democrats grieved. Newsom called the decision “radical.” Bonta’s office issued a legal notice that California’s law was now “likely unconstitutional.”

But within the court’s ruling, gun control advocates saw the chance to make California’s concealed-carry law stronger.

What the justices didn’t say

Thomas’ opinion determined that states could still ban firearms in “sensitive places,” such as schools and government buildings, as long as the restricted list wasn’t overly broad or extensive.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John Roberts also wrote in a concurring opinion that states were still generally free to mandate objective licensing requirements, such as, among others, firearms training, fingerprinting and background checks.

Senate Bill 918 builds on those small windows of opportunity.

The proposal would label dozens of public places as “sensitive,” where licensed holders couldn’t carry their firearms, including but not limited to: schools, courts, hospitals and other medical facilities, airports, public transportation, bars, public parks, casinos, churches and libraries, according to a bill analysis. Recent amendments clarified there are some exceptions for hunters.

The legislation also replaces California’s “good cause” requirement with what Portantino says is concrete, versus discretionary, criteria for licensing authorities to use in determining whether someone is a “qualified” applicant.

Licensing officials would have to conduct in-person interviews with applicants, for example, and interview at least three character references, with a preference that at least one be a spouse or cohabitant. Authorities could also review “publicly available statements or posts regarding or made by the applicant,” as a way to determine if someone applying for a license is a danger to the public or themselves.

The proposal would also set the minimum age to obtain a permit to 21 and establish new gun training and storage requirements.

Advocates contend that these requirements fall squarely within the Bruen decision.

Ari Freilich, state policy director for Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, said “much remains to be seen” with how courts interpret the Bruen decision. But the ruling didn’t outlaw “objective but strong” qualification standards someone must meet to carry a weapon in public.

The proposal would bring California into compliance with the Bruen ruling, Freilich said, but in a way that could also “help limit the damage, limit the harms, that the extreme court decision might otherwise cause.”

Questions remain

Gun rights advocates, unsurprisingly, hate the bill.

In a statement, National Rifle Assn. Western Regional Director Dan Reid called SB 918 “an overt attempt to undermine the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

“In the Bruen case, the court held that individuals have a right to bear arms outside the home and that states with discretionary ‘may-issue’ permitting schemes such as California fell short of the protections guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution,” Reid said. “Rather than making a good faith effort to comply with this ruling, this legislation is defiant.”

The bill will almost certainly draw legal challenges if it’s signed into law by Newsom, which is expected.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law, said that at this point, almost any new gun control law is subject to a constitutional challenge.

But certain provisions in SB 918, notably the interview and character witness requirements, might be more constitutionally dubious than others, Chemerinsky said.

“I think some parts of it would be constitutional, some parts likely unconstitutional.”

A looming deadline

Lawmakers have until the clock strikes midnight on Wednesday to pass the hundreds of bills awaiting final approval.

Portantino added an urgency clause to SB 918, meaning it will go into effect immediately once signed. But that threshold requires a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Legislature. Portantino said he thought he had the numbers. The Assembly needs to vote on the bill before the Senate can send it off to Newsom on concurrence.

The proposal will join more than a dozen gun control bills Newsom prioritized this year to mitigate a crisis of mass shootings. The governor has already signed several into law, including one that increases legal liability through private right of action against the industry, another that limits firearm advertising to minors and a third that further restricts ghost guns.

Portantino said SB 918 was a way, within Bruen, to keep a strong concealed carry law on the books in California.

“Obviously, there’s a risk behind that. But I think it would be irresponsible for us not to go down that road,” he said. “You have no choice. You have to do this.”

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— Newsom on Monday vetoed a bill that would have allowed supervised injection site pilot programs in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Oakland, in efforts to prevent drug overdose deaths and connect people to treatment for addiction.

— In a historic decision, the California Air Resources Board voted Thursday to require all new cars and light trucks sold by 2035 to be zero-emission vehicles. Now the real work begins.

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