California is shaping up to be the next major battleground over the Second Amendment, as gun rights activists in the nation's most populous state push for loosening concealed carry laws.
The state has some of the most restrictive such laws in the country. To get a permit to carry in public, you have to show "good cause" to a local official like a sheriff. In San Diego County, like a lot of urban areas, the sheriff set that bar high. Self-defense alone was not enough to count as "good cause" — you had to prove your life was in immediate danger or that you were carrying valuables, for example.
A three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that San Diego's policy is unconstitutional.
"They recognized that the Second Amendment is something that applies to everyone, not just a few individuals with some kind of a special need," says Chuck Michel, the National Rifle Association's West Coast counsel. "It's not a privilege; it's a right."
California's attorney general and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, however, are asking that the case be considered by the full 9th Circuit, not just the three-judge panel. Their request is pending.
Charlie Blek, president of a local Southern California chapter of the Brady Campaign, says that local sheriffs need that extra layer of power to deny concealed carry permits, and that the current ruling sets a bad precedent.
"By doing this, we are robbing them of their particular discretion to help make our communities safer," he says.
Twenty years ago, Blek's son was shot and killed during an armed robbery. Since then, he's lobbied heavily for legislation restricting guns in urban areas of California and nationally.
The San Diego case could have national implications. It's not the only one working its way through the courts that seeks to loosen California's concealed carry law, but it's gotten the furthest. In a case in New York, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals recently upheld local restrictions on concealed carry permits. These conflicting rulings could be a sign that the Supreme Court will weigh in.
"The United States Supreme Court has said only that people have a Second Amendment right to have guns in their home, for the sake of security," says Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Irvine School of Law.
An unresolved question, he says, is whether people have a constitutional right to have guns outside the home for the sake of self-defense.
For now, there are a lot of unresolved questions about the 9th Circuit ruling in the San Diego case, and whether it may or may not apply across California. The full 9th Circuit has not yet said whether it will consider the case. In San Diego, everything is on hold while the sheriff waits to see whether the ruling becomes final.
Next door in Orange County, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens has decided to start easing restrictions. She says her office has had to hire extra staff to process all the new applications for concealed carry permits: 1,200 since the ruling came down last month.
But it's not as if everyone who applies will automatically get a permit. As in every other county in California, they still have to pass background checks and take firearms safety training.
Hutchens says she's trying to strike a balance on a heated political issue.
"To me, it's not about my personal opinion on whether people should have CCWs [concealed carry weapons]," she says. "It's about what the law says."