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Sharp v. Becerra

United States District Court, E.D. California

June 25, 2019

XAVIER BECERRA, in his official capacity as Attorney General of California; BRENT E. ORICK, in his official capacity as Acting Chief of the Department of Justice Bureau of Firearms; JOE DOMINIC, in his official capacity as Chief of the Department of Justice California Justice Information Services Division; CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE; and DOES 1 through 20, inclusive, Respondents.



         Through the present lawsuit, Plaintiffs, who are a combination of both individual firearm owners and gun rights interest groups, challenge the alleged shortcomings of the online program administered in 2017-2018 by the California Department of Justice and its officials (hereinafter collectively “Defendants”) for registering “bullet button” firearms on behalf of gun owners possessing those weapons before they became illegal following a 2016 amendment to California's Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act (“ACWA”). Plaintiffs allege they were subject to constitutional due process violations in the way that Defendants' program was handled. Plaintiffs' Complaint was originally filed in state court before being removed to this Court on August 24, 2018 under federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331.

         Now before the Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs' operative Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”), which, for the reasons outlined below, is DENIED.[1]


         The California Legislature passed ACWA in 1989 in response to a growing number of shootings involving semiautomatic weapons, including an incident occurring at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton where five children were killed. See Silveira v. Lockyer, 312 F.3d 1052, 1057 (9th Cir. 2002) (citing 1989 Cal. Stat. ch. 19, § 3 at 64, codified at former Cal. Penal Code § 12275, et seq.). ACWA, as initially constituted, prohibited assault weapons by make and model. Because gun manufacturers responded by making “copycat” weapons that were substantially similar to the restricted weapons, and differed in only insubstantial respects, in 1999 the Legislature amended ACWA to define the class of restricted weapons by features, as opposed to simple restrictions on certain models. Id. at 1058. Those amendments refined the definition of prohibited guns by providing that a weapon constituted a restricted assault weapon if it had the capacity to accept a detachable magazine in addition to one of several specified military characteristics. See S.B. 880, 2015-2016 Reg. Sess., Assembly Comm on Pub. Safety, June 13, 2017, p. 4. This amendment was intended to close the loophole created by assault weapons being defined only by make and model. See id.

         In 2016, the Legislature amended ACWA yet again, this time in response to a minor design change made by gun manufacturers that allowed shooters to use the tip of a bullet as a “tool” to push a button that would release the ammunition magazine. Id. at 5. With the so-called “bullet button, ” a detachable ammunition magazine could be removed and replaced in seconds, rendering meaningless any distinction in California law between a magazine that is not “detachable” and one that can be readily without the use of a special tool. As was noted in the course of the 2016 amendment process, weapons with “bullet buttons” are the functional equivalents of illegal assault weapons in every respect, except that the shooter uses a bullet, magnet, or other instrument, instead of his or her finger, to depress the button that releases the weapon's magazine. As a proponent of gun safety noted, “[t]hese weapons may be reloaded as quickly as prohibited assault weapons, [and] have been permitted to flood into the state at an alarming rate, threatening Californians' safety.” Id. at 8. As such, the 2016 amendments to ACWA prohibited semiautomatic rifles as those without a “fixed” magazine, with a “fixed” magazine defined as an “ammunition feeding device contained in, or permanently attached to, a firearm in such a manner that the device cannot be removed without disassembly of the firearm action.” Cal. Penal Code § 30515(b).

         ACWA, as both originally enacted and as subsequently amended, included a so-called “grandfather” clause permitting anyone to retain an assault weapon lawfully possessed prior to being made unlawful, so long as the weapons were registered by their owners with the California Department of Justice. Id. at §§ 30680, 30900. With particular reference to the bullet-button assault weapons targeted by the 2016 amendments, if an individual lawfully possessed such weapons before January 1, 2017, that person could continue to possess them provided the weapons were registered by July 1, 2018, in the Department of Justice's “California Firearms Application Reporting System (“CFARS”). Cal. Penal Code §§ 30680, 3099(b)(1).

         CFARS went live in August of 2017, providing nearly a year-long window within which individuals could register, through the internet, assault weapons prohibited by the 2017 amendment to ACWA. SAC, ¶ 36. Plaintiffs allege, however, that Defendants' online registration system was riddled with problems from the very onset and was both underfunded and understaffed. Frequent glitches and computer crashes made weapons registration difficult. According to the SAC, as of February 2018, some five months into the registration period, there was a backlog of some 4, 653 uncompleted applications. By June 30, 2018, when the registration period ended, that backlog had increased some ten-fold to 52, 443. See SAC, ¶¶ 39-42.[2]

         The individual Plaintiffs, for the most part, attempted to register their weapons during the last couple of days of the registration period. They claim they were assured that despite systems issues their applications could nonetheless be completed through additional attempts. Some Plaintiffs describe repeated unsuccessful attempts, however, before the registration period simply phased out. In the meantime, because the DOJ refused to extend the period, this lawsuit was filed on July 11, 2018.

         While Plaintiffs allege four causes of action, each is grounded on alleged due process violations stemming from the claim that Defendants' website was “flawed, intermittently inoperable, and ultimately incapable of providing a reliable means for the public to register their firearms in accordance with the law.” SAC, ¶ 3. According to Plaintiffs, because they cannot legally own their weapons now that the registration period has passed, their property rights have been abridged. Perhaps even more importantly, Plaintiffs aver that this alleged deprivation of due process subjects them to criminal sanctions should they persist in possessing the prohibited weapons. Finally, from a procedural standpoint, Plaintiffs allege the program was woefully inadequate.

         Defendants, on the other hand, claim that Plaintiff'' property rights have not been abridged because individual gun owners can either modify their weapons or sell them in another state. The State further claims that Plaintiff gun owners were themselves responsible for failing to register by waiting until the eve of the deadline to attempt to do so.


         On a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), all allegations of material fact must be accepted as true and construed in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Cahill v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 80 F.3d 336, 337-38 (9th Cir. 1996). Rule 8(a)(2) “requires only ‘a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). A complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not require detailed factual allegations. However, “a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Id. (internal citations and quotations omitted). A court is not required to accept as true a “legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (citing 5 Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1216 (3d ed. 2004) (stating that the pleading must contain something more than “a statement of facts that merely creates a suspicion [of] a legally cognizable right of action”)).

         Furthermore, “Rule 8(a)(2) . . . requires a showing, rather than a blanket assertion, of entitlement to relief.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 n.3 (internal citations and quotations omitted). Thus, “[w]ithout some factual allegation in the complaint, it is hard to see how a claimant could satisfy the requirements of providing not only ‘fair notice' of the nature of the claim, but also ‘grounds' on which the claim rests.” Id. (citing Wright & Miller, supra, at 94, 95). A pleading must contain “only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Id. at 570. If the “plaintiffs . . . have not nudged their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible, their complaint must be dismissed.” Id. However, “[a] well-pleaded complaint may ...

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