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Federal District Court: California’s Waiting Period to Acquire a Firearm Violates the Second Amendment

Friday, August 29, 2014

On Monday, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California issued an opinion holding that California’s 10-day waiting period for nearly all firearm sales violates the Second Amendment, at least as applied to certain individuals.  The opinion, written by Judge Anthony W. Ishii, generally found California’s justifications for the waiting period insufficient to overcome the burden the waiting period placed on Californians’ right to keep and bear arms.

The court first concluded that the waiting period created a burden on the Second Amendment. Specifically, it found the state failed to put forth any historical evidence showing that the waiting period should fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment or was one of the types of longstanding and presumptively lawful regulations identified by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller.  Because the court determined that the waiting period burdened the Second Amendment, the state was required to show a “reasonable fit” between the supposed state interest furthered by the law, public safety, and the state’s rationale for how the waiting period furthered that interest. 

The state attempted to justify the burden created by the waiting period with three separate arguments.  First, that the waiting period provided time for the California Department of Justice to conduct a background check on the prospective purchaser.  Second, that the waiting period created a “cooling off period” that prevented impulsive acts of violence.  Third, that the waiting period helped to deter “straw purchases” by giving law enforcement sufficient time to investigate the purchaser. 

The plaintiffs argued that these justifications were insufficient to meet the “reasonable fit” requirement as to three classes of individuals:  those who already own a firearm as indicated by California’s Automated Firearms System, holders of concealed carry permits, and holders of a Certificate of Eligibility.  Notably, individuals in each of these classes have already undone extensive background checks and, in most cases, already own one or more firearms.  

The court analyzed the justifications for each class separately, but the court’s rationale in rejecting each justification was generally the same for each separate class.  In rejecting the background check justification, the court found that in many cases background checks are completed anywhere from a few hours to one day and in the vast majority of cases the check was completed in fewer than 10 days, so the background check provided no justification for the waiting period beyond the actual time needed to complete the check on a case-by-case basis.   The court was not persuaded by the “cooling off period” justification because individuals in each of the three classes already owned a firearm or had undergone a thorough background investigation that made it extremely unlikely that these individuals would carry out an impulsive violent crime.  As to the “straw purchase” justification, the court found that there was no evidence that the legislature had intended the waiting period to serve as a deterrent to straw purchases or that the waiting period actually did deter straw purchases.

Even if the decision is not appealed, it will not take effect for at least 180 days because of a stay that was granted to give California sufficient time to alter its firearm acquisition procedures to comply with the court’s holding.  While the holding is technically limited to the three classes of individuals raised by the plaintiffs, the court’s discussion of the state’s justifications, or lack thereof, for the waiting period exposes waiting period laws for what they truly are:  an attempt to limit firearm ownership through burdensome regulation.

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