9th Circuit Panel Vacates Decision After Previously Striking Down California Gun Law

Court gives state a 2nd chance to argue in favor of ban on young adults buying long guns

9th Circuit Panel Vacates Decision After Previously Striking Down California Gun Law
California Attorney General Rob Bonta speaks at a news conference in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 17, 2021. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP Photo)
Matthew Vadum

A federal appeals court last week sent a case challenging California’s ban on long gun sales to people under 21 back to a district court, instead of immediately enforcing the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision saying gun regulations must be based on historical traditions to be constitutional.

Critics say the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit and several “blue resistance” states have been dragging their heels in complying with the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on June 23 in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen. The decision recognized a constitutional right to bear firearms in public for self-defense and struck down New York’s law that required an applicant to demonstrate “proper cause” to obtain a license to carry a concealed handgun in public.

The ruling also found that gun restrictions must be deeply rooted in American history if they are to survive constitutional scrutiny.

But weeks before the Bruen decision, on May 11, a panel of the 9th Circuit overturned a federal district court decision and voted 2–1 in Jones v. Bonta (pdf), finding that California’s ban on 18- to 20-year-olds possessing long guns and semiautomatic centerfire rifles violated the Second Amendment. The ban doesn't apply to police officers or members of the military.

“America would not exist without the heroism of the young adults who fought and died in our revolutionary army,” wrote Judge Ryan Nelson, a Trump appointee. “Today, we reaffirm that our Constitution still protects the right that enabled their sacrifice: the right of young adults to keep and bear arms.

“The Second Amendment protects the right of young adults to keep and bear arms, which includes the right to purchase them.”

In a concurring opinion, Judge Kenneth Kiyul Lee, also a Trump appointee, wrote that “California’s legal position has no logical stopping point and would ultimately erode fundamental rights enumerated in our Constitution.”

Yet when the case returned to the same three-judge 9th Circuit panel for rehearing, the panel declined to immediately resolve the case, instead vacating its May 11 decision and remanding the case to the district court “for further proceedings consistent” with Bruen. The panel didn't provide reasons for its unanimous decision in its Sept. 7 order (pdf).

Although the decision of the panel—which previously ruled against the law—to return the case to the district court could be an example of judicial meticulousness, it gives California another opportunity to justify its age-specific ban on long gun possession that's now on an even weaker constitutional footing in light of the Bruen opinion.

Attorneys for the state argued the history standard enunciated in Bruen “dramatically changed the ground rules” for gun law litigation, so the case needed to return to the district court to examine new evidence, including historical records, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The state argues the Bruen ruling was narrow and that the ban on sales of long guns to young adults was still constitutional.

The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta, a Democrat, told the newspaper it was eager to defend the law “to protect the public safety of Californians and so that they can safely live, work, and congregate without fear of becoming a victim of gun violence.”

Bonta is known for his opposition to Second Amendment rights.

After the Bruen ruling, Bonta encouraged law enforcement officials in the state to deny firearm carry permits to individuals with a history of “hatred and racism”—whether expressed in social media posts or elsewhere, The Epoch Times reported.
Days after the Bruen decision, Bonta’s office acknowledged that it leaked sensitive personal information, including the names and addresses of every concealed carry permit holder in the state. Some permit holders say they now fear for their lives.
On March 24, 2021, the 9th Circuit rejected (pdf) a challenge to Hawaii’s tough gun-permitting laws brought by George K. Young Jr. of Hilo.
Young applied twice for a carry license in 2011 but failed to convince officials of his need for one. He sued in federal district court and lost and then appealed to the circuit court and lost again, as The Epoch Times reported.
But on Aug. 19, an 11-judge panel of the 9th Circuit issued an order (pdf) sending the case back to the district court for a second look, in light of Bruen.

Four of the judges dissented from the remand ruling.

Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain, a Reagan appointee who authored the dissenting opinion, wrote that the majority was failing “to resolve the straightforward legal issues presented by this case.”

“After Bruen, the question before us is simple. Nevertheless, our Court today declines to answer it. In refusing to do so, our Court delays the resolution of this case, wastes judicial resources, and fails to provide guidance to the lower court of our Circuit. As a judge of this Court, I feel obliged to offer such guidance, even if a majority of my colleagues does not,” O’Scannlain wrote.

“We are bound, now, by Bruen, so there is no good reason why we could not issue a narrow, unanimous opinion in this case.

“The traditional justifications for remand are absent here. The issue before us is purely legal, and not one that requires further factual development.”

Young’s attorney, Alan Alexander Beck of San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times that he agreed with O’Scannlain.

“This case has been in litigation for 10 years, and, in light of the fact that this is a pure issue of law, there’s actually no need for the 9th Circuit to remand the issue,” Beck said.

“They should have issued a ruling on the merits.”