Stung by a deadly mass shooting Sunday mere blocks from the state Capitol, California lawmakers on Tuesday advanced an innovative new approach to gun control that would empower private citizens to sue those who traffic in illegal weapons.
California already has some of the nation’s strictest firearms rules, but it has yet to find a way to deter those willing to skirt the laws with stolen or homemade and increasingly prevalent “ghost” guns.
Its latest attempt, proposed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom, would allow people to file civil lawsuits against anyone who distributes illegal assault weapons, parts that can be used to build weapons, guns without serial numbers, or .50 caliber rifles. They would be awarded at least $10,000 in civil damages for each weapon, plus attorneys fees.
“California leads the nation in enacting robust gun laws…and we’re still seeing this unprecedented level of gun violence,” Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, who is carrying the bill, told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “There’s still much to be done, and we need to be creative.”
Sunday’s mass shooting in a downtown Sacramento nightclub area renewed calls for tougher firearms laws from President Joe Biden. He asked Congress to take many of the steps nationwide that California already has in place — imposing background checks, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and outlawing ghost guns.
Yet the first weapon recovered after gunmen killed six people and wounded 12 in downtown Sacramento early Sunday had been stolen and converted to being capable of automatic gunfire, investigators said Tuesday.
Hertzberg’s bill is patterned after a similar Texas law allowing citizens to go after those who provide or assist in providing abortions. And even if it becomes law, it will automatically be invalidated if the Texas law is eventually ruled unconstitutional.
It would not include stolen weapons unless they are otherwise made illegal, for instance by filing off the serial number. And it would not bar anyone from possessing or using the weapons, though they are illegal under other laws.
“This is tit-for-tat political gamesmanship, which is the worst reason to be passing some kind of a bill,” said Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association and an attorney who wrote a book about California’s complicated gun laws. “You’re going to deputize a bunch of amateurs — non-lawyers, non-cops — to judge a neighbor’s actions and then give them the right to drag them into court over it.”
Michael Finley, government affairs director for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the bill would conflict with federal law and includes firearm parts that aren’t by themselves illegal. A California law taking effect July 1 will require that they be sold only through licensed firearms dealers.
Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence’s state policy director, Ari Freilich said the bill “would essentially bring more enforcement oversight to some specific criminal laws in California.”
“It’s not something that’s really been tried before,” Freilich said.
He wouldn’t predict if it would be effective, but said the proposal has some “potential challenges.” Among them is encouraging civil actions to punish crimes, and establishing “a bounty” to be collected by those who haven’t been directly harmed.
His organization is backing other bills, including one that would make it easier for people to sue gun companies for liability in shootings that cause injuries or death. Two other bills also target firearm parts and guns without serial numbers, and those made with 3D printers.
The Democratic authors of several gun bills joined Hertzberg on the Capitol steps Tuesday, advocating for their measures as ways to reduce gun violence. Among them is a bill that would limit the type of firearms advertising and marketing that can be geared toward children.
“Collectively, our legislation can work to stop the kind of mass shootings that changed the city over the weekend,” Hertzberg said.
His bill cleared the Judiciary Committee on an 8-1 vote. It must pass two more committees before it can be considered by the full Senate and then the Assembly.
Newsom, in a statement, called the committee’s passage “an important step” and Sunday’s mass shooting “a tragic reminder of the lives that are at stake in this crisis.”
But several committee members, including the panel’s chairman, Sen. Tom Umberg, a fellow Democrat, questioned if California should tie itself too closely to the Texas model.
Umberg said he supports both the bill’s attempt to contain illegal weapons and its effort to “the highlight the absurdity of the Texas law.” But he said he ultimately hopes Hertzberg’s bill fails because the Texas abortion law is ruled unconstitutional.
“This sort of comes under the ‘monkey see, monkey do’ rubric,” Umberg said. “And hopefully we won’t be doing the ‘monkey do’ thing all the way ’til the end.”
Legislative analysts also raised several concerns about the measure.
Much like the Texas law, the analysts said Hertzberg’s legislation is written so broadly that it might ensnare, for instance, “a taxi driver that takes a person to a gun shop.” Hertzberg said that is not the intent and said language in the bill means that an accomplice must have knowledge of what is going on.
He also criticized the Texas law, but said that if his bill proves effective, California lawmakers might want to keep it.
“If Texas can use this mechanism to take away a woman’s right to choose and endanger lives, California can use the same mechanism to do anything creative to ban deadly weapons of war and save lives,” Hertzberg said.