A federal appeals court ruled on Thursday that two California counties violated the constitutional right to keep and bear arms when they shut down gun and ammunition stores during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
The National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups sued the state in March 2020 (pdf) over the shutdowns after gun and ammunition stores were deemed non-essential businesses across Ventura County and Los Angeles County.
Ventura County closed gun stores for 48 days while Los Angeles county closed them for 11 days.
“State and federal firearms licensees are essential businesses that provide access to constitutionally protected rights. Full stop,” the pro-gun groups said in their complaint, which called the store closures “unlawful government infringements upon freedom.”
County officials had previously won separate lower court decisions stating that the gun stores were right to have been temporarily closed amid the broader shutdowns to prevent the COVID-19 virus from spreading early on in the pandemic.
However, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday rejected both lower court rulings.
Judge Lawrence VanDyke wrote that the Second Amendment (pdf) “means nothing if the government can prohibit all persons from acquiring any firearm or ammunition. But that’s what happened in this case.”
VanDyke also noted that the two California counties had allowed other businesses, including bike shops, to remain open as essential businesses.
“The Orders therefore wholly prevented law-abiding citizens in the County from realizing their right to keep and bear arms, both by prohibiting access to acquiring any firearm and ammunition, and barring practice at firing ranges with any firearms already owned,” he wrote. “These blanket prohibitions on access and practice clearly burden conduct protected by the Second Amendment and fail under both strict and intermediate scrutiny.”
“The court today rightfully recognized that Los Angeles County violated Second Amendment rights when it shut down gun stores and ranges in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Michael Jean, NRA’s director of the Office of Litigation Counsel in a statement. “This is an important decision. It ensures that California—or any state—cannot use a crisis to trample on the Constitutional rights of citizens.”
The National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) has also challenged strict COVID-19 restrictions in New Mexico and New York, as well as four other counties in Northern California with regards to gun shop closures.
Ventura County spokeswoman Ashley Bautista told The Associated Press in an emailed statement that it “believes the case was correctly decided at the District Court level and is disappointed with the three-judge panel’s decision.” Officials are reviewing the decision and “evaluating our options and next steps,” Bautista said.
The Firearms Policy Coalition, another gun owners’ rights group that sued both Ventura County and Los Angeles County said that similar restrictions were imposed across 10 other states including Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, and Virginia.