Newsom Wants Texas-Like Law to Help Enforce California's Assault Weapons Ban

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Gavin Newsom points to his left as he speaks.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on Election Day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on Sept. 14, 2021, in San Francisco. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday pledged to empower private citizens to enforce a ban on the manufacture and sale of assault weapons in the state, citing the same authority claimed by conservative lawmakers in Texas to outlaw most abortions once a heartbeat is detected.

California had banned the manufacture and sale of many assault-style weapons for decades. But in June a federal district judge overturned that ban, ruling it unconstitutional and drawing the ire of the state’s Democratic leaders by comparing the popular AR-15 rifle to a Swiss Army knife as “good for both home and battle.” The ban remained in place while the state appealed, and in November, a federal appeals court upheld California’s restrictions, scrapping the lower court’s ruling.

Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers in Texas this year passed a law banning abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which normally occurs at about six weeks into pregnancy. The Texas law allows private citizens to enforce the ban, empowering them to sue abortion clinics and anyone else who “aids and abets” with the procedure.

On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the Texas law to remain in effect while abortion clinics sue to block it. That decision incensed Newsom, a Democrat who supports abortion rights.

“If states can now shield their laws from review by the federal courts that compare assault weapons to Swiss Army knives, then California will use that authority to protect people’s lives, where Texas used it to put women in harm’s way,” Newsom said in a statement released by his office on Saturday evening.

Newsom said he has directed his staff to work with the state’s Legislature and its Democratic attorney general to pass a law that would let private citizens sue to enforce California’s ban on assault weapons. Newsom said people who sue could win up to $10,000 per violation plus other costs and attorneys fees against “anyone who manufactures, distributes, or sells an assault weapon” in California.

“If the most efficient way to keep these devastating weapons off our streets is to add the threat of private lawsuits, we should do just that,” he said.

Law professors speaking with KQED said Newsom's gambit is risky, and cautioned that the Supreme Court, with its conservative bent, may not be as receptive to California's approach as they were to the one implemented in Texas.

"They are different because the Supreme Court's going to view them as different," said Jessica Levinson, a law professor and director of Loyola Law School's Public Service Institute in Los Angeles. "They'll find some way to distinguish the two."

Rory Little, a professor at UC Hastings Law in San Francisco, said the Supreme Court's decision to not strike down the Texas statute was an "outrageous" move that may ultimately encourage other states to similarly pass laws allowing citizens to sue to stop other practices they might politically disagree with.

Newsom's strategy, while "understandable," Little said, may be the beginning of something bigger and, perhaps, chaotic.

"When Pandora opened the box, all these terrible diseases poured out and infected the world," Little said. "I don't think any of us want to see a world where every state can arm all of its citizens with private lawsuits to enforce whatever right the state feels like should be enforced. I mean, first, it'll flood the courts with lawsuits, presumably. And second, it's not the way we have traditionally tried to enforce the law in this country. Traditionally, we have relied on the government to enforce the law."

Newsom's proposal is already winning approval among some California Democrats. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, whose city is seeing a surge in homicides this year, voiced her support Sunday.

“I applaud Gov. Newsom for adding the threat of private lawsuits to help take illegal assault weapons and ghost guns off our streets," Schaaf said, in a statement. "We must continue to do all we can to prevent the devastating loss and trauma of gun violence in our beloved communities.”

The legal fight over the Texas abortion law has focused on its unusual structure and whether it improperly limits how the law can be challenged in court. Texas lawmakers handed responsibility for enforcing the law to private citizens, rather than to state officials.

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The case raised a complex set of issues about who, if anyone, can sue over the law in federal court, the typical route for challenges to abortion restrictions.

Newsom’s gun proposal would first have to pass California’s Legislature before it could become law. The Legislature is not in session now and is scheduled to reconvene in January. It usually takes about eight months for new bills to pass, barring special circumstances.

State Sen. Brian Dahle, a Republican from Bieber, would oppose the plan but predicted it would probably pass California’s Democratic-dominated Legislature. He said the proposal was most likely a stunt for Newsom to win favor with his progressive base of voters ahead of a possible run for president in the future.

“The right to bear arms is different than the right to have an abortion," said Dahle. "The right to have an abortion is not a constitutional amendment. So I think he’s way off base. I think he’s just using it as an opportunity to grandstand.”

But Newsom’s Saturday night declaration is a fulfilled prophecy for some gun rights groups who had predicted progressive states would attempt to use Texas's abortion law to restrict access to guns. That’s why the Firearms Policy Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for gun rights, filed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court opposing the Texas law.

“If Texas succeeds in its gambit here, New York, California, New Jersey, and others will not be far behind in adopting equally aggressive gambits to not merely chill but to freeze the right to keep and bear arms,” attorney Erik Jaffe wrote on behalf of the coalition.

While state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat representing San Francisco and parts of San Mateo County, would not say whether he supported Newsom's proposed law, he did note it would prompt a much-needed national debate.

"The Texas law is horrific, and it was just reprehensible that the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed this law to remain in effect. So I want to see the Texas law and anything like it just disappear. But it's happening, unfortunately," Wiener said. "Gov. Newsom is calling [into] question the slippery slope Texas and the Supreme Court have created by moving in this direction. And so it's a really important conversation."

KQED's Azul Dahlstrom-Eckman contributed to this report, as did Associated Press reporter Adam Beam.