Gun advocates armed for legal fight

Times Staff Writer

Emboldened by Thursday’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling affirming the right of individuals to own handguns, advocates said they would immediately challenge a San Francisco law that prohibits guns in public housing and sue other cities nationwide to overturn gun restrictions.

The California lawsuit, which the National Rifle Assn. said it would file in federal court in San Francisco today, was one of several legal challenges that gun rights groups said they would pursue in the wake of the court decision.

“I expect there will be a significant number of California laws challenged because there have been a significant number of irrational and counterproductive laws passed in the state in recent years,” said Chuck Michel, the NRA’s chief attorney, who also represents other gun rights groups.

Hours after the Supreme Court ruling came down, two groups sued Chicago over its handgun ban, which is similar to the District of Columbia law the high court struck down. In addition, the NRA said it would file a lawsuit against Chicago today and would also sue surrounding cities that ban handguns.


“We are currently going over statutes at the local, state and federal level,” NRA chief lobbyist Chris W. Cox said. “I am certain there will be challenges to all sorts of statutes as we move forward.”

California, considered to have the most restrictive gun laws in the country, is a particularly attractive target for lawsuits by the gun lobby. Cox said the NRA was considering action against another San Francisco law that requires gun owners to store their guns in locked containers or use trigger locks.

Other California laws that gun rights groups plan to scrutinize include the state’s ban on assault weapons, the permitting process for carrying a concealed weapon in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and restrictions in Los Angeles on gun retailers, Michel said.

Some lawsuits were prepared in advance of the Supreme Court ruling. “The decision today was not entirely unanticipated,” he said.

He said gun advocates hope the lawsuits will lead to a broader ruling that the right to have a firearm at home for self-defense is not limited to places falling under federal jurisdiction, such as Washington, D.C. The high court did not decide that question, because the law affected only the District of Columbia.

Gun control supporters said they would vigorously fight the challenges.

Juliet Leftwich, senior counsel for the Legal Community Against Violence, a San Francisco-based lawyers group, said the group was putting out a call for pro bono lawyers to help fight the lawsuits. She said the help from outside lawyers would allow advocates to continue to push for new restrictions.

“We are concerned the resources are going to be diverted to the defense of laws already on the books,” she said.


Leftwich said it was “an open question” whether the two San Francisco gun laws would be struck down. Thursday’s ruling said government could continue to prohibit guns in schools and in government buildings, but also said that individuals have the right to keep guns for self-defense.

San Francisco prohibits any firearm or ammunition in buildings controlled by the city, including in its public housing projects, and its law on gun storage does not contain an exception for keeping a loaded gun in a nightstand, Leftwich said. Opponents could argue that the laws prevent individuals from defending themselves.

A spokesman for the San Francisco city attorney’s office said he could not comment on any litigation until it was filed.

Kay Holmen, president of the California chapters of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said most California cities have some gun restrictions. The group rates states on a scale of 1 to 100. The higher the score, the more restrictive the state’s laws. The group gave California a score of 79, the highest in the U.S.


California requires mandatory background checks on all firearm purchasers, limits handgun purchases to one a month, prohibits the manufacture and sale of guns that have not passed certain safety tests, requires handgun purchasers to obtain a safety certificate after passing a written test and performing a safe-handling demonstration, imposes a 10-day waiting period on purchases, maintains records of handgun purchases, and prohibits the sale of large-capacity ammunition magazines, among other restrictions, according to the Legal Community Against Violence.

The group said guns killed or injured more than 7,700 Californians in 2005, the last year for which it has statistics.

“Here in Los Angeles, not a lot of concealed-gun permits are issued,” Holmen said. “We tightened the restrictions on guns here.”

Holmen said she expected that an anticipated challenge to the state assault weapons ban would fail. “An individual has a right to own a gun, but that doesn’t mean there is an individual right to own any gun,” she said.


As the NRA prepared to sue San Francisco, its leaders also were looking closely at a law in New York City that restricts the carrying of guns outside the home, Cox said.

“The only people who have permits to keep a firearm for self-defense outside the home are the mayor’s rich buddies from Wall Street, his celebrity friends and his political cronies,” Cox said.

He said the litigation would show that the right to bear arms under the 2nd Amendment “is a right as sacred and special as the 1st Amendment, the 4th Amendment and any other amendment.”