Anticipating a shift to the right in the courts, the NRA begins its attack on gun controls in California

The state affiliate of the National Rifle Assn. on Monday filed the first in a series of planned court challenges opposing sweeping new gun control laws approved in California in the wake of the San Bernardino terror attacks.

The flurry of legal action comes as Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s choice for the Supreme Court, takes his seat, returning a conservative majority to the nation’s highest court. And as the Republican administration begins appointing additional judges to the federal court system, gun-rights advocates say they hope that some of the more restrictive laws imposed in recent years will be vulnerable to legal challenge.

California is a natural target for the gun lobby. Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law several gun control bills, including a prohibition on the sale of semiautomatic rifles equipped with so-called bullet buttons that allow for the quick removal and replacement of ammunition magazines.

The first lawsuit was filed Monday in federal court in Santa Ana by the California Rifle and Pistol Assn., the state affiliate of the NRA, and asks the courts to declare the expanded assault weapon law unconstitutional.

“It criminalizes possession of firearms which are commonly possessed for lawful purposes by law-abiding citizens for self- defense or shooting sports,” said Chuck Michel, a Long Beach attorney for the gun rights groups.

The legislation and other bills including a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines were approved by Brown and the Legislature in response to a 2015 terrorist shooting in San Bernardino in which weapons including AR-15 rifles were used to kill 14 people attending a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center.

But the new law “will do nothing to stop terrorists or violent criminals, and infringes on the right to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment," the groups argued in a statement Monday.

Brown declined to comment on the lawsuit, but Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) predicted Monday that the strengthened gun controls would withstand any legal challenge.

“Background checks and other guns laws California has enacted have saved lives and are key in making our mortality rate one of the lowest in the nation,” De León said in a statement. “I am confident that the courts will reject the NRA’s arguments, just as our voters did in November, and uphold California’s right to implement common-sense policies to protect its people.”

Michel said the NRA plans five lawsuits in total to challenge new gun laws in California, including one as early as next week that will seek to invalidate a ban on the possession of ammunition magazines capable of holding more than 10 bullets.

Adam Winkler, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, said the legal challenges may not prevail at the lower court level because California is limiting gun use, not outlawing it completely.

“I still think it’s unlikely that the NRA is going to be successful against these kinds of regulations,” Winkler said. “Where you see complete bans on firearms you are more likely to see success.”

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Gorsuch filled a vacancy on the court caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016. Michel said there are indications that Gorsuch will share Scalia’s views in favor of the 2nd Amendment protection of gun owners’ rights.

“We are much more hopeful that if we have to go up that high [to the U.S. Supreme Court] that we will get somebody who will apply the test that will protect the 2nd Amendment rights to bear firearms for lawful purposes,” Michel said.

Even if Gorsuch’s seating on the court does not change its balance from when Scalia was on the bench, Winkler sees the stepped-up activity by the NRA as anticipating the future — with a Supreme Court whose decisions could favor its cause.

“The NRA is playing the long game,” Winkler said. “They are going to fight these battles in the hopes that if this does go to the Supreme Court, it will be three or four or five years down the road and it will be a different court, with additional nominees from President Trump.”

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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