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Federal court upholds California’s ban on gun sales at fairgrounds and other public property

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California laws restricting firearm sales at gun shows on state fairgrounds. Here, Gov. Gavin Newsom met with the media at Del Mar Fairgrounds in 2022, where he backed gun control legislation.
Nelvin C. Cepeda
The San Diego Union-Tribune via AP Photo
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California laws restricting firearm sales at gun shows on state fairgrounds. Here, Gov. Gavin Newsom met with the media at Del Mar Fairgrounds in 2022, where he backed gun control legislation.

Judges at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals distinguished between gun sellers’ Constitutional rights and the government’s authority to decide what kind of commerce takes place on public property.

You can talk about guns at California state fairgrounds. You can advertise guns there, too. You can even, in the words of a gun rights group, host “a celebration of America’s gun culture.”

What you cannot do, according to a ruling today by a three-judge panel on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, is buy or sell a firearm on property owned by the state.

The ruling upholds California’s ban on gun sales on state property, dismissing a challenge from gun show operator Crossroads of the West. The judges distinguished between the free speech rights of gun enthusiasts on public property and the sales that often take place at gun shows.

California gun laws “prohibit accepting an offer to sell firearms or ammunition on state property,” the panel ruled.

Crossroads of the West first sued in 2018 when one of California’s agricultural district associations barred gun shows at Del Mar Fairgrounds in San Diego County. In 2021, a new state law also barred gun sales at the state fairgrounds in Orange County, which inspired another Crossroads lawsuit.

The cases were consolidated, and as they wound their way through the courts, California passed a 2022 law barring all gun sales on state property.

In the meantime, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a major gun case, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, which tossed out New York state regulations on who can carry a gun in public and threw California’s restrictive gun laws into chaos. Gov. Gavin Newsom has since proposed a federal constitutional amendment restricting gun ownership.

The new ruling ends an injunction from a lower court that blocked the restriction on gun sales at fairgrounds.

“The restoration of my ban on gun shows on state properties — including most of the county fairgrounds sites that are owned by the state — will make us all safer,” said state Sen. Dave Min, an Irvine Democrat who advocates for limits on gun sales.

The California Rifle and Pistol Association, a Second Amendment advocacy group, called the ruling “extremely disappointing” and signaled that it would appeal.

“The three-judge panel clearly did not understand the connection between First Amendment and Second Amendment rights,” the organization wrote in a statement. “CRPA will continue to protect the despised gun culture and fight back against an overreaching government that seeks to limit disfavored fundamental rights and discriminate against certain groups of people on state property.”

Crossroads of the West argued in court that restrictions on gun sales at state fairgrounds violated its First and Second Amendment rights and that forbidding those sales would effectively kill gun shows at state fairgrounds. The appeals court panel ruled that that’s not a First Amendment issue.

The organization “may choose not to provide a forum for pro-gun speech if it decides gun shows are not profitable without firearm sales, but doing so would be its own decision, not the ‘inevitable effect’” of the laws, the judges ruled.

Crossroads of the West said some California legislators described the legislation as a “ban on gun shows,” but that alone doesn’t prove that the laws themselves were passed to suppress speech.

“It is virtually inevitable that elected officials will have underlying ideological views on political issues,” the judges ruled. “But even if California legislators hold personal animus against pro-gun speech, the statutes they enact only implicate the First Amendment if that animus manifests as legislation with the direct or inevitable impact of restricting speech.”

To the question of whether the laws violate the Second Amendment, Crossroads of the West argued that forbidding gun sales at one location impedes people’s constitutional right to acquire firearms – something the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has held is part of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.

The three-judge panel disagreed, ruling that forbidding gun sales on state property doesn’t prevent people from access to firearms or ammunition.

“There are six licensed firearm dealers in the same zip code as the Orange County Fairgrounds,” according to the ruling. “Merely eliminating one environment where individuals may purchase guns does not constitute a meaningful constraint on Second Amendment rights when they can acquire the same firearms down the street.”

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.