Newsom to use Texas abortion law tactics to go after assault rifle, ghost gun makers – San Francisco Chronicle


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In a new approach to gun control inspired by Texas’s controversial approach to banning most abortions, California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Saturday announced that his administration will work to make it easier for private citizens to sue people who sell assault rifles and parts for untraceable ghost guns.

State officials will aim to craft a measure that would allow residents to seek damages of at least $10,000, plus legal fees, against anyone who manufactures, distributes or sells an assault weapon or ghost gun kit in California.

“If states can now shield their laws from review by the federal courts that compare assault weapons to Swiss Army knives,” Newsom said in a press release late Saturday, “then California will use that authority to protect people’s lives, where Texas used it to put women in harm’s way.”

In seizing on Texas’s successful approach to severely limiting abortion access, Newsom’s plan is likely to attract a version of the controversy that embroiled lawmakers there after they approved a bill banning abortion after a heartbeat is detected, usually around six weeks into a pregnancy. The new law, which is already spurring droves of women to seek abortion access out of state, is unique because it relies on enabling private citizens to sue abortion providers for the same amount Newsom is proposing in his new gun measure.

President Biden has criticized the approach of the Texas abortion law as the “most pernicious” aspect of it — because, he said, it creates “a sort of vigilante system” by encouraging the public to police the issue.

Newsom’s office, meanwhile, billed the gun announcement on Saturday as a direct response to a Supreme Court decision on Friday that allowed the Texas abortion measure — which also awards citizens $10,000 if they successfully sue — to stand in most places.

“SCOTUS is letting private citizens in Texas sue to stop abortion?!,” Newsom tweeted Saturday. “If that's the precedent then we'll let Californians sue those who put ghost guns and assault weapons on our streets.”

Jessica Levinson, a Supreme Court expert who teaches constitutional law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, told The Chronicle that the announcement is another example of Newsom hoping to be a “quarter step ahead of public opinion and one step ahead of where he can go legally,” pointing to his support of same-sex marriage, legalization of marijuana and other laws.

“He is proposing to use a mechanism that many — that he and many others — have vilified. But I think it’s quite smart, right? I think it’s a big ‘F— you’ to the Supreme Court,” Levinson said. “If you’re going to allow unconstitutional laws — or I should say in this case, constitutionally questionable laws — that are insulated from judicial review, then we’re going to use that to our advantage.”

While unrelated to abortion, assault weapons and ghost guns have emerged as legal controversies in their own right in recent years after a series of contradictory court rulings and frustration about a lack of accountability after mass shootings.

An AR-15 assault rifle that was illegal in California but purchased out of state was used in the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting that claimed the lives of three victims in 2019. The shooting at San Jose’s VTA railyard in May, where nine people were killed, involved several legal handguns but illegal high-capacity ammunition.

Second Amendment advocates have been quick to challenge state and local efforts to curb access to guns and ammunition. Statewide public opinion polls, meanwhile, have found that Californians generally favor tightening the rules.

Levinson said while she does not yet know how Newsom’s proposed law would be structured, it would be fair to describe the tactics as vigilante, a term that has been used to condemn Texas’ strategy for letting private citizens sue abortion providers.

“In one case we might be comfortable with (the strategy) because we don’t want assault weapons on the streets, and in the other case we might not be comfortable with it because we want women to be able to exercise their right to choose,” Levinson said. “If you use it in one, then you really have to use it in another.”

She believes Newsom expects legislation to face legal challenges and would hope to get it to the Supreme Court.

Newsom’s effort illustrates rising tension over a conservative shift in the Supreme Court under former President Donald Trump, which liberals fear could topple current state and federal policies on everything from abortion to environmental regulations to LGBTQ rights to California’s decades-old assault weapons ban.

“If the most efficient way to keep these devastating weapons off our streets is to add the threat of private lawsuits,” Newsom said in a press release, “we should do just that.”

Chronicle staff writer Lauren Hernández contributed to this report.

Lauren Hepler is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LAHepler

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