A year after Democratic infighting tanked a high-profile gun-control bill in Sacramento, California lawmakers successfully approved legislation on Tuesday to limit who can carry firearms in public, setting up a likely legal challenge that could reach the Supreme Court.
State Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-Burbank) introduced Senate Bill 2 in response to a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down restrictive and subjective concealed-carry laws as unconstitutional, leaving California and a handful of other Democratic-led states scrambling to rewrite their gun laws.
Despite support from both Gov. Gavin Newsom and Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, internal bickering within the Democratic caucus last year led to the bill’s demise, an unceremonious end to what was considered priority legislation for the legislative leadership. Portantino reintroduced the measure ahead of the 2023 legislative session, and vowed to win enough votes to send it to Newsom’s desk this year.
Two high-profile mass shootings in Half Moon Bay and Monterey Park this year have only increased pressure on Democrats to crack down on gun violence in California. That’s despite the state having some of the most prohibitive gun laws in the country, so restrictive that some have been struck down by the federal courts.
Senate Bill 2 is one of a handful of major gun-control measures introduced this year. Its passage follows the Legislature’s recent approval of a historic bill to impose an 11% tax on dealers and manufacturers for sales of guns and ammunition.
“There’s a reason why you’re far less likely to die from bullets in California,” Newsom said in a statement after the Assembly approved SB 2. “We’re using every tool we can to make our streets and neighborhoods safer from gun violence.”
The Assembly approved SB 2 on Monday in a 48-21 vote and the Senate finalized it 28-8, with Republicans and one Democrat voting against the measure. It now heads to Newsom, who has until Oct. 14 to sign or veto the measure.
SB 2 aims to balance compliance with the Supreme Court’s decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. vs. Bruen with stringent limitations on who can obtain a concealed-carry permit in California.
“The Supreme Court forced California to reevaluate how we do concealed-carry permits,” Portantino said. “This is setting up a statewide standard to determine who should and shouldn’t be trusted with the responsibility of having a concealed-carry permit…this just makes sense.”
The 6-3 decision by the high court’s conservative majority focused on whether “may-issue” concealed-carry laws in states such as New York and California were constitutional, or when licensing authorities have broad discretion over granting an application. Most states have “shall-issue” laws, which largely guarantee a permit once an applicant meets licensing criteria.
Gun owners in New York successfully argued that the state’s “proper cause” requirement to earn a permit, like for self-defense, was a 2nd Amendment violation. The decision immediately invalidated California’s similar “good cause” standard as unlawful.
Writing for the court majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said that states could still ban firearms in a narrowed list of so-called sensitive places where firearms have historically been prohibited, such as schools, government buildings or polling places. But in a concurring opinion, Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. argued that states were also generally allowed to include objective licensing criteria in their application process, including firearms training, fingerprinting and background and mental health checks.
Portantino’s measure includes more than two dozen “sensitive places” where concealed firearms would not be allowed, such as daycare centers and schools, bars, college campuses, government buildings, medical facilities, parks and playgrounds and on public transit. The bill would also make commercial businesses automatically gun-free zones unless the owner explicitly indicates otherwise.
The bill also maintains rigorous application requirements for licensing authorities, mainly county sheriffs, to determine whether someone is a “disqualified person” from obtaining a permit, a term that opponents of SB 2 see as another subjective term that wouldn’t pass constitutional muster.
The protocol includes conducting in-person interviews, obtaining character references and reviewing social media and other publicly available statements to identify safety risks. The bill requires an applicant to be 21, the same age required to buy a handgun, and bolsters training and safe storage rules.
“We have seen time and again that more guns are killing people day in and day out across this country,” Assemblymember Rebecca Bauer-Kahan (D-Orinda) said during an Assembly floor debate. “And we need to do this because the activist Supreme Court took measures that took those laws away from us. And this is our step to get back to a place where we ensure that the people who are carrying these weapons have the appropriate permits and are doing so in the appropriate places.”
Republicans blasted the bill as a misguided and discriminatory effort by Democrats to blame lawful firearm owners for gun violence in California.
“We’re punishing law-abiding people who are simply exercising their constitutional rights, and doing nothing about the criminals who continue to victimize people each day in this state,” said Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher of Yuba City. “It’s sick. Don’t lecture me about gun control and gun violence if you’re not going to do something about the people who are the real problem.”
Gun-rights groups have already pledged to sue to block the bill’s implementation.
“While it is true that the Legislature has a compelling interest in protecting both individual rights and public safety, it’s important to note that the Legislature cannot balance one set of rights by diminishing others,” the Gun Owners of California wrote in opposition to the bill. “In due course, SB 2 will be a costly and unnecessary blemish for California to bear. This can be avoided.”
It’s likely that the Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue again. Legal challenges are already underway to similar laws that New York and other states passed in response to the Bruen decision.
Andrew Willinger, executive director of the Duke Center for Firearms Law at Duke University in North Carolina, said the Supreme Court’s ruling left a lot of questions for lower courts to answer, which has caused great national confusion over the new rules. Much of the legal uncertainty centers on sensitive places, and whether states can pass laws such as SB 2 that effectively render so many public spaces as off limits to firearms.
“The sensitive places seems to me to be a little more consequential, because even if you have a concealed-carry license, you’re not going to be able to take your firearm to this long list of places,” Willinger said. “I think ultimately this is probably something that will go to the Supreme Court in the next couple of years.”