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Effect of Court Decisions on Guns Remains Murky in California

September 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Correspondent Spencer Michels examines how U.S. Supreme Court rulings limiting local gun-control laws are playing out in California.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: how recent Supreme Court rulings limiting gun control laws are playing out in California. NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels reports.

SPENCER MICHELS: Police Chief Ken James is worried about what recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings striking down gun control laws in Washington, D.C., and Chicago could mean for his Bay Area city of Emeryville.He believed his town’s gun laws deterred violent crime.

KEN JAMES, Emeryville, California, Police Chief:Guns are always dangerous.And you never know when — when that gun is — when that’s going to turn on you.If we have greater control on the guns, greater regulation on the guns and in the public realm, the — the chances of us coming in contact with that gun become fewer.

SPENCER MICHELS: But as chair of the California Police Chiefs Firearms Committee, he’s not clear about what the high court rulings mean for California’s gun regulators.

KEN JAMES: It kind of opened up this whole new field of — of what is a reasonable regulation of handguns or firearms.So, now, I think, anything can be challenged in the courts as to what is reasonable.

SPENCER MICHELS: That’s because the high court left many questions about specific gun laws unanswered.In District of Columbia vs. Heller, the justices ruled that the Second Amendment guarantees a personal right to keep handguns in the home for self-defense.It struck down a flat ban on handguns in the nation’s capital.And then, this summer, it sent a Chicago law banning handguns back to a lower court, ruling that, not just federal enclaves, but all jurisdictions and all laws, had to honor the right to keep and bear arms.

Some gun laws, the court said, were constitutional, those involving felons or mentally ill persons or those banning carrying firearms in schools or government buildings.Don Kilmer, an attorney representing the operators of a gun show, says the decisions clarify the basic rights of gun owners.

DON KILMER, attorney for gun show:The Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment is an individual right.You don’t have to be a member of a militia.And then they also extended that right as enforceable against state and local governments.So, the Second Amendment applies across the country.Every law-abiding citizen has the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense and lawful — other lawful purposes.

SPENCER MICHELS: But, beyond that, everyone agrees, the effects of the court’s decisions are unclear.

KEN JAMES: We’re going to have more challenges in the courts to — to vet out what are these issues.

SPENCER MICHELS: One of the first challenges will be to an Alameda County law that, in effect, bans gun shows like this one in San Jose on public property.It was passed following a 1998 shooting at the fairgrounds in nearby Alameda County.

MAN: Semiautomatic…

SALLIE NORDYKE, gun show operator:Semiautomatic firearms.

Sallie Nordyke and her husband, operators of a gun show at the fairgrounds, sued, saying the ban would put them out of business.

SALLIE NORDYKE: They have an agenda that they go by, and they want to eliminate all guns and — from the legitimate public that can own them.

SPENCER MICHELS: You obviously disagree with that?

SALLIE NORDYKE: I obviously disagree with them because of the fact that we are licensed through the state.We pay our money.We pay our taxes.And, yet, they are taking away a legitimate business.

SPENCER MICHELS: Nordyke says other communities in California copied the Alameda County ban, and her gun show business tanked.Her lawyer says the Supreme Court has vindicated his position.

DON KILMER: Most people can’t manufacture a gun in their home.People come to gun shows to buy guns.You have to have the right to acquire the means of exercising your right.

SPENCER MICHELS: But more gun shows is not what Juliet Leftwich wants to see.She represents the anti-gun group Legal Community Against Violence, which filed briefs in the Supreme Court cases.

JULIET LEFTWICH, Legal Community Against Violence:What happens at gun shows is that there are illegal sales that are made under the table by gun traffickers.I mean, there’s not adequate supervision at the gun show to — for them to really be able to say that every single sale is in compliance with state and federal law.And it should up to the — to the local jurisdiction to determine if it wants its own property to be used in that way.

SPENCER MICHELS: An appeals court has asked both sides to reargue the gun show issues, in light of the Chicago decision.For her part, Sallie Nordyke thinks that decision will help her case, and her bank account, drained by 11 years of legal costs.

SALLIE NORDYKE: I think it’s going to change.I think we have got the pendulum swinging in our direction at this point.

SPENCER MICHELS: But the high court rulings will have other far- reaching effects, especially in California, which has a lot of laws restricting guns, says Kilmer.

DON KILMER: The state of California was free to pass any gun law it wanted, without any constitutional limitation whatsoever.Now they’re going to be limited by the federal Constitution, the Second Amendment.And this is where future litigation is going to go as to whether or not California’s laws step over the line of constitutionally permissible regulation.

SPENCER MICHELS: Gun enthusiasts and the National Rifle Association are eager to test other gun laws as well.They say there probably will be challenges to restrictions allowing only one handgun to be purchased in a 30-day period, and the limitation of 10 rounds per magazine.

And they are taking aim at California’s list of unsafe handguns.That, attorney Kilmer argues, is arbitrary and capricious.Kilmer also says that laws giving sheriffs the power to issue concealed weapon permits allow some sheriffs to unfairly deny almost all permit applications.But Juliet Leftwich thinks states should continue to defer to local sheriffs on the issue of concealed weapons.As for future gun regulations, she’s concerned the court’s rulings and the NRA’s actions will have a chilling effect.

JULIET LEFTWICH: The major obstacle to the passage of — of gun control laws is not the Second Amendment.It’s really the political will, and public opinion, and dealing with the power of the gun lobby.The gun lobby is very intimidating.They have a lot of clout.And they have filed many lawsuits and threatened lawsuits over every type of gun control law that is even considered.

SPENCER MICHELS: Perhaps the hottest debate these days centers on what’s called open carry, where Californians are allowed to wear unloaded handguns on their belts in public.It’s a growing movement in the state, where gun advocates want to make it commonplace.The state legislature recently defeated an effort to make it illegal, despite pleas from police like Ken James.

KEN JAMES: We have to look at that gun and — and be leery of that gun, loaded or not.I have had advocates say to me, well, you should be able to tell by our demeanor that — that we’re not a threat, and that should — should relax you.

Well, we — number one, we don’t know who you are.And, number two, we don’t know whether that gun is loaded or not.So, we’re — we’re going to have to deal with that gun.

SPENCER MICHELS: All sides agree the debate will continue, and even intensify, as dozens of gun cases work their way through the courts.