Gov. Newsom signsbill
Gov. Newsom at the signing ceremony for Senate Bill 1327. Photo courtesy of the Governor’s office

Senate Bill 1327 has to be one of the strangest pieces of legislation to ever be passed by the California Legislature and signed into law.

The brainchild of Gov. Gavin Newsom and modeled after an anti-abortion law enacted a year ago in Texas, the measure he signed last week would, at least on paper, subject manufacturers of unlawful firearms to steep civil damages.

The Texas law allows private citizens to sue a provider, patient or anyone involved in an abortion before six weeks of gestation. The new California law would sanction private party suits against arms makers for selling what California defines as “assault weapons,” plus “ghost guns” that are assembled from parts without serial numbers.

“Texas and [Gov.] Greg Abbott and their Republican leadership, if they’re going to use this framework to put women’s lives at risk, we’re going to use it to save people’s lives here in the state of California,” Newsom declared.

In that sense, SB 1327 is just a political stunt, a piece of Newsom’s very obvious campaign to raise his national political standing by tasking potshots at Texas and Florida and their Republican governors, rather than serious policymaking.

As he was signing the bill in Los Angeles last Friday, three Texas newspapers were publishing ads taken out by Newsom’s re-election campaign sniping at Abbott for restricting abortion while not reducing gun violence — a little gesture to help Abbott’s Democratic challenger, former Congressman Beto O’Rourke, as well as garner some more national media attention for Newsom.

The conclusion that SB 1327 is merely a publicity stunt is bolstered by the details of the legislation itself.

First of all, SB 1327 would self-destruct if the Texas Supreme Court or the U.S. Supreme Court invalidates the Texas law.

Secondly, there is very little chance that there would be a successful lawsuit. The firearms that are specifically targeted by the legislation are already illegal under California law and the major arms makers that Newsom implies would be punished take great pains not to sell the prohibited products.

Makers of black market “ghost guns” could be sued — but only if one could find them, and even if they were identified, they are not likely to be wealthy enough to attract the attention of a fee-motivated attorney.

Various elements of the bill try to make it impossible for anyone sued to mount a defense, including one passage that would require damages — at least $10,000 per gun — to be awarded even if a judge declared the law to be invalid. And if the lawsuit provisions of SB 1327 are declared unconstitutional, the measure would substitute civil penalties instead.

Finally, a federal law — rightly or wrongly — protects firearms manufacturers from liability suits.

The bill is so obviously drafted as a political gesture that the American Civil Liberties Union opposed it for using the “flawed logic” of the Texas statute.

“We believe it is a serious misstep to further entrench that flawed logic,” the organization said when the bill was going through the legislative process. “In doing so, California will be promoting a legal end-run that can be used by any state to deny people an effective means to have their constitutional rights protected by the courts. This will continue to be replicated in states across the country — and with California’s endorsement.”

Gun control is a serious subject involving a specific right to bear arms in the Constitution, one that the Supreme Court has recently bolstered in a way that Newsom dislikes. It deserves thoughtful political discourse, not interstate political oneupsmanship.

CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters.



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Ellen Bullock