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If N.Y. law is overturned by Supreme Court, California could see more people carrying guns

San Francisco Chronicle logo San Francisco Chronicle 11/2/2021 By Bob Egelko
Todd Settergren of Setterarms gun shop, handles pistols inside his display case on Friday Jan. 13, 2017, in Walnut Creek, Ca. Settergren says California gun laws have gone too far and he welcomes the chance that the federal government under the Trump administration will ease restrictions on concealed carry permits and specific weapon bans. © Michael Macor / The Chronicle

Todd Settergren of Setterarms gun shop, handles pistols inside his display case on Friday Jan. 13, 2017, in Walnut Creek, Ca. Settergren says California gun laws have gone too far and he welcomes the chance that the federal government under the Trump administration will ease restrictions on concealed carry permits and specific weapon bans.

If the Supreme Court, as widely expected, strikes down New York state’s restrictions on carrying guns in public, there could be a proliferation of firearms on city streets. And not just in New York.

The law the justices will consider Wednesday, requiring a permit from local officers to carry a concealed handgun, is similar to statutes in seven other states, including California and the District of Columbia. Those laws are not directly before the court but are almost certain to fall if New York’s law is ruled to be in violation of the constitutional right to bear arms.

“Counties like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, with the biggest cities in California ... are going to have to allow more people to carry guns on the streets,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA law professor who has written extensively on firearms issues.

Out of about 10 million people in Los Angeles County, Winkler said, fewer than 400 private citizens are allowed to carry concealed firearms legally, reflecting the policy of law enforcement agencies in most urban areas of California to deny permits unless applicants have strong evidence of danger to themselves or family members. In rural counties, by contrast, the permits are issued regularly.

In states that require officers to issue permits to any applicant who is legally entitled to own a gun, between 3% and 5% of the population has concealed-carry permits, Winkler said. In Los Angeles County, that would amount to between 300,000 and 500,000 people.

It would be between 26,000 and 43,000 in San Francisco, and between 50,000 and 84,000 in Alameda County. Currently, according to law enforcement officials, San Francisco has issued only one concealed-weapons permit to a private citizen, and Alameda County has issued 300.

If the court strikes down the law, Winkler said, within the next few years ”there’s a good chance that when you go into your favorite supermarket, there’s going to be someone there with a concealed firearm.”

And if the concealed-carry law falls, other laws may also fall in California, which has some of the nation’s tightest gun restrictions: bans on large-capacity gun magazines and on semiautomatic rifles and pistols the state defines as “assault weapons”; waiting periods and age limits for gun purchases, and a unique, voter-approved requirement of background checks for purchasers of ammunition.

“The court could signal a willingness to consider challenges to those laws, inviting a flood of litigation and creating uncertainty about states’ ability to regulate firearms,” said attorneys at the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control organization based in San Francisco.

Most of the California laws have been upheld by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — applying “the wrong test of constitutionality,” said C.D. Michel, the National Rifle Association’s chief counsel in California. But the Supreme Court, which in 2017 rejected a challenge to California’s permit requirements for concealed handguns, has changed.

Justice Clarence Thomas, who has accused his colleagues of treating the Second Amendment as a “second-class right,” now has company in Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, two Donald Trump appointees who expressed similar views as appellate judges. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, another Trump selection, have joined Thomas’ dissents when the court left other state gun laws intact.

And now the court will review a gun law for the first time in more than a decade — the first since its rulings in 2008 and 2010 declaring that the Second Amendment entitles Americans to possess handguns at home for self-defense The vote to consider the New York law, upheld by lower courts based on the Supreme Court’s precedents, suggests that a majority is prepared to interpret the amendment more broadly.

“If I had to guess, I do think they will strike it down,” said John Donohue, a Stanford law professor who has filed arguments with the court supporting the New York law. “I am trying to convince anyone who can be persuaded not to do it in a way that causes an unusual level of disaster.”

That depends both on the scope of the ruling, due by the end of the court’s term next summer, and on the public safety impact of having more guns on the streets. That has long been a central issue in the gun-control debate, and it is sharply disputed in the New York case.

“The question in this case is whether right-to-carry in such a nation increases crime. It doesn’t,” William English, an assistant professor of economics at Georgetown University, said in a Supreme Court filing by the pro-gun Firearms Policy Coalition. He said carrying concealed firearms in public, allowed by laws in all but eight states, has had “no statistically significant effect on murder or violent crime rates.”

Donohue said numerous studies have reached the opposite conclusion. Between 1979 and 2014, he said in a 2019 analysis, the passage of right-to-carry laws “led to an immediate increase in and worsening pattern of violent crime that was substantial and statistically significant,” with immediate rises averaging 9% and increases of up to 15% within 10 years.

The Rand Corp. surveyed conflicting studies and said in an April 2020 report that evidence of right-to-carry laws’ impact on homicide rates was “inconclusive” but there was some “limited evidence” that such laws “may increase violent crime.”

But there is little dispute that the United States — whose 333 million residents own more than 390 million firearms, nearly half the world’s total — has more gun violence than other affluent nations. The U.S. gun homicide rate was 4.43 deaths for every 100,000 in the population in 2017, compared with .06 per 100,000 in Great Britain and .04 in Japan and China.

“If guns saved lives, we’d have a low homicide rate,” Donohue said.

Those statistics are irrelevant to the current debate, retorted English, because other nations have “different cultures and characteristics.”

The Supreme Court case is New York State Rifle & Pistol Association vs. Bruen, 20-843.

Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @BobEgelko


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