California must allow law-abiding citizens to carry concealed firearms in public, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday, striking down the core of the state's permit system for handguns.
In a 2-1 decision, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said San Diego County violates the Constitution's Second Amendment by requiring residents to show "good cause" -- and not merely the desire to protect themselves -- to obtain a concealed-weapons permit.
State law requires applicants to demonstrate good cause, as well as good moral character, to carry concealed handguns, while leaving the permit process up to each city and county. The ruling, if it stands, would require local governments to issue permits to anyone of good moral character who wants to carry a concealed gun for self-protection.
"The right to bear arms includes the right to carry an operable firearm outside the home for the lawful purpose of self-defense," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain said in the majority opinion.
He disagreed with federal appeals courts that have upheld similar laws in New York, New Jersey and Maryland, while endorsing an appellate court that struck down Illinois' absolute ban on concealed weapons in public. The split among appellate circuits increases the prospect that the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the issue.
The high court ruled in 2008 that the Second Amendment protects the right to keep a handgun in the home for self-defense, but has not defined its application to carrying weapons in public.
In the same ruling, the justices said restrictions on carrying concealed weapons were "presumptively lawful," meaning that they would be upheld unless shown to be unreasonably burdensome. But the appeals court said the county's licensing system doesn't pass the Supreme Court's test because of the additional burdens California places on would-be gun owners.
California has long had some of the nation's strongest restrictions on gun ownership, and, according to the court, is one of only eight states that allow local governments to deny concealed-weapons permits. The state formerly allowed residents to carry unloaded firearms in public, with ammunition in a separate container, but repealed that law at the start of 2013.
The ban on openly carrying guns made it impossible for most law-abiding citizens in counties like San Diego to "bear arms" for self-defense, O'Scannlain said in Thursday's ruling. He said the Second Amendment guarantee of the right to "bear arms" must include the right to carry weapons outside the home.
The risk of armed confrontation "is not limited to the home," O'Scannlain said. He invoked the situations of "a woman toting a small handgun in her purse as she walks through a dangerous neighborhood, or a night-shift worker carrying a handgun in his coat as he travels to and from his job site."
C.D. Michel, lawyer for the National Rifle and Pistol Foundation and individuals who challenged the San Diego County system, said sheriffs in many rural California counties already comply with the court's standard by issuing gun permits to anyone who wants one for self-defense. But urban counties require evidence of a special need for a weapon, the requirement that the court invalidated, he said.
"The right to self-defense doesn't end at your threshold," Michel said. He said the ruling is "probably the biggest Second Amendment win" since the Supreme Court's 2008 ruling and a follow-up decision in 2010.
Ruling on hold
James Chapin, the San Diego deputy county counsel who defended the permit system, said the county will ask the full appeals court for a rehearing before an 11-judge panel. The ruling will be on hold while that request is pending.
O'Scannlain, one of the court's most conservative members, was joined by fellow conservative Connie Callahan in the majority, while liberal Judge Sidney Thomas dissented.
"Courts and state legislatures have long recognized the danger to public safety of allowing unregulated, concealed weapons to be carried in public," Thomas said. By allowing permits only to those who show a special need for self-protection, he said, San Diego and other counties strike "a reasonable balance between individuals interest in self-defense and the public's interest in limiting the proliferation of handguns in public spaces."
Martin Mayer, a lawyer for statewide organizations of law enforcement officers, endorsed Thomas' view. He said the ruling would lead to a proliferation of guns on the streets.
"The majority of peace officers killed in the line of duty are killed by guns," Mayer said. "If you have a domestic violence incident and a gun is available, it's more likely to be used. ... It increases the harm to law enforcement and to the public."
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