Federal Courts Weigh Gun Rights and States’ Rights

The Ninth Circuit is siding with gun owners over states.

In two separate cases this month the Ninth Circuit Court has ruled in favor of gun owners and against state governments trying to regulate certain aspects of gun ownership.

On July 12th a Ninth Circuit Panel upheld an injunction blocking California from enforcing part of a ban on high capacity magazines. The ban is part of a California law known as Proposition 63, which was approved by voters as a ballot initiative in 2016 and took effect in July of last year. One of the provisions was a ban on magazines that contain more than ten rounds, and the requirement that Californians who currently posses that type of magazine either take them out of state, sell them to a licensed gun dealer, or give them to law enforcement.

A lawsuit was initiated by gun owners opposed to the requirement and a federal judge granted an injunction preventing California from enforcing the law until the case is decided, probably sometime this fall. The Ninth Circuit did not decide the case but upholding that injunction is a big move away from states rights in favor of Federal control. Essentially the Ninth Circuit has determined that California Law Enforcement is not allowed to enforce a law in California that was passed by California voters, until a Federal Court allows them to. Upholding the injunction is not a guarantee that when the case itself is heard the court will side with the gun owners but it’s a notable legal decision in it’s own right.

In a separate case on July 24 the Ninth Circuit ruled that the State of Hawaii had violated a man’s Second Amendment rights when it denied his request to be permitted to carry a gun openly in public. Hawaii has some of the strictest gun regulations in the country, and is actually able to enforce them because the Hawaii has a greater ability than other states to control what firearms and ammunition enter the state. Hawaii also has the fourth lowest rate of gun deaths in the U.S. according to the CDC. The Ninth Circuits decision to side against the state of Hawaii in this case could mean significantly more guns in public in Hawaii and it could also call in to question a number of the State’s other gun regulations.

States’ rights are legally a murky territory, and what the states do and don’t have control over is constantly getting questioned and refined. The 10th Amendment to the Constitution says “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”, but exactly which powers have and haven’t been delegated can be hard to nail down. In what’s in question is what is the precise legal definition of “bear arms” as it’s used in the Second Amendment.

It’s likely that one or both of these cases will end up at the Supreme Court eventually and it is very much up in the air how the current SCOTUS would decide them. The court leans conservative at the moment, but in this instance that doesn’t clarify the outcome because this is a case of one conservative value versus another. In a case from earlier this year involving the rights of states to allow sports betting the Supreme Court sided with the states and against a federal rule banning sports betting. This makes sense because historically conservatives have been in favor of state’s rights over federal control. The Preamble of the 2016 Republican Party Platform notes that one of the Party’s priorities is “returning to the people and the states the control that belongs to them.”

However, gun rights are also very high priority for modern conservatives, the Republican Party Platform has a whole section on upholding the Second Amendment. The Supreme Court has declined to hear many gun cases in recent years so it’s not immediately clear how the current justices would choose to interpret the Second Amendment in regards to these challenges, and they may keep it that way and decline to take either of these cases. If that happens, conservatives may rejoice at expanded gun rights in California and Hawaii, but they should know that it came at fairly high cost in terms of States’ Rights.

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I agree, I think looking at the numbers in Hawaii can provide really valuable information, because it is controlled in a way that other areas aren't. I also have to say, as a Hawaii resident the prospect of a lot more guns in public is something I am not looking forward to here, so I personally hope that's not how this ends up.

Pat Greer
Pat Greer


Very informative. SEcond amendment is a complex issue, one that seems to even murky itself in self contained environments like Hawaii. It's a good microcosm for other controlled areas.