California legislators on Monday approved Texas-style lawsuits over illegal guns, mimicking the Lone Star State's law aimed at deterring abortions and obliquely linking the two most controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions from last week.
The California bill would allow anyone to sue people who sell illegal firearms.
Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom sought the measure in part to tweak the conservative wing of the U.S. Supreme Court, which gave preliminary approval to the Texas law allowing citizens to sue anyone who provides or assists in providing an abortion. The California bill would automatically be invalidated if the Texas law is eventually ruled unconstitutional.
Legislators acted days after the nation's high court allowed states to ban abortions, and separately expanded gun rights in states including California.
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“What Texas did on abortion was dangerous, and we already know how disgusting the recent decision by the United States Supreme Court has been,” said Democratic Assemblyman Mike Gipson. “But California stands to lead the way in this space in a very powerful and dynamic way. This is about empowering everyday people who are at the blunt of gun violence.”
The California Assembly approved the bill Monday, 50-19, sending it back to the Senate for a final vote. Senators already passed a version in May on a 24-10 roll call. Newsom has said he expects lawmakers to send the bill to him as early as this week, before they leave for a monthlong summer recess.
“This puts power back in the people’s hands,” said Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting. “This creates a private right of action that allows almost anyone to bring a lawsuit against those who manufacture, distribute, transport, import or sell illegal assault weapons, rifles, ghost guns or ghost gun kits.”
No legislators spoke against the measure.
But the bill faces unusual combined opposition from both gun owners' rights organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union, which separately have criticized creating a bounty to encourage people to bring civil actions to punish crimes.
The California bill would allow people to sue anyone who distributes illegal assault weapons, parts that can be used to build weapons, guns without serial numbers, or .50 caliber rifles. They would be awarded at least $10,000 in civil damages for each weapon, plus attorneys fees.
“We cannot stand silently by while California leaders escalate an ‘arms race’ ... by setting up bounty-hunting schemes on politically sensitive issues,” the ACLU said in an opposition letter. It also opposes the Texas law, in part because both “would set a dangerous legal precedent," since both are designed to skirt judicial review by empowering citizens to act in place of government officials.
The bill is one of four that Newsom asked lawmakers to fast-track in response to recent mass shootings, including one that killed 19 students and two teachers at an elementary school in Texas in May.
The other three bills all previously cleared the state Assembly and two of the three passed the Senate on Monday along with several other firearms bills.
The second bill similarly empowers private citizens to take action, this time by suing gun makers or dealers who fail to follow precautions under a “firearm industry standard of conduct.” Violators could be sued by the attorney general, city or county attorneys, or anyone who suffered harm.
“Financial repercussions may finally push the firearms industry and dealers to be more responsible in improving their practices and obeying the series of gun laws that we have here in California,” said Democratic Sen. Robert Hertzberg, who carried the bill in the Senate.
Republican Sen. Shannon Grove objected that lawmakers should instead concentrate on those who obtain weapons illegally.
“I mean, we have car accidents," Grove said. "That’s not the car dealer or the car manufacturer’s fault, it’s the guy driving the car’s fault.”
The bill passed the Senate, 25-9, sending it to Newsom.
The third is aimed at untraceable “ghost guns” by requiring precursor firearms parts to have serial numbers. It passed the Assembly 63-0 and is awaiting a Senate vote. It would give Californians who have weapons without serial numbers six months to register them and add the numbers.
“Almost anyone can order these kits, “said Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino. “We must now eradicate the deadly untraceable weapons currently wreaking havoc in our communities.”
The measure passed the Senate, 30-0, and returns to the Assembly for a final vote on amendments.
The fourth bill restricts advertising of firearms to minors. It, too, would allow people harmed by violations to sue for damages.