California ban on gun ads that are ‘attractive to minors’ blocked by federal appeals court

A federal appeals court has concluded that California likely violated the First Amendment, by banning gun ads that “reasonably appear[] to be attractive to minors.” Thus, the groups challenging the ban were entitled to a preliminary injunction against the ban.

The ruling was by three Republican-appointed judges to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Their ruling reversed a ruling by a Democratic-appointed trial judge upholding the ban.

Here are excerpts from the appeals court’s decision Wednesday in Junior Sports Magazines, Inc. v. Bonta:

This case is not about whether children can buy firearms. (They cannot under California law.) Nor is this case about whether minors can legally use firearms. (California allows minors under adult supervision to possess and use firearms for hunting, target practice, and other activities.) And this case is not about whether California has tools to combat the scourge of youth gun violence. (It does.)

Rather, this case is about whether California can ban a truthful ad about firearms used legally by adults and minors—just because the ad “reasonably appears to be attractive to minors.” So, for example, an ad showcasing a safer hunting rifle with less recoil for minors would likely be unlawful in California. Under our First Amendment jurisprudence, states can ban truthful and lawful advertising only if it “materially” and “directly” advances a substantial government interest and is no more extensive than necessary. California likely cannot meet this high bar.

While California has a substantial interest in reducing gun violence and unlawful use of firearms by minors, its law does not “directly” and “materially” further either goal. California cannot straitjacket the First Amendment by, on the one hand, allowing minors to possess and use firearms and then, on the other hand, banning truthful advertisements about that lawful use of firearms. There is no evidence in the record that a minor in California has ever unlawfully bought a gun, let alone because of an ad. Nor has the state produced any evidence that truthful ads about lawful uses of guns—like an ad about hunting rifles in Junior Sports Magazines’ Junior Shooters—encourage illegal or violent gun use among minors. Simply put, California cannot lean on gossamers of speculation to weave an evidence-free narrative that its law curbing the First Amendment “significantly” decreases unlawful gun use among minors. The First Amendment demands more than good intentions and wishful thinking to warrant the government’s muzzling of speech.

California’s law is also more extensive than necessary, as it sweeps in truthful ads about lawful use of firearms for adults and minors alike. For instance, an advertisement directed at adults featuring a camouflage skin on a firearm might be illegal because minors may be attracted to it….

Judge VanDyke agreed in his concurrence, but would find the law unconstitutional for additional reasons:

California wants to legislate views about firearms. The record for recently enacted California Assembly Bill 2751 (AB 2751) indicates a legislative concern that marketing firearms to minors would “seek[] to attract future legal gun owners,” and that that’s a negative thing. No doubt at least some of California’s citizens share that view. They may dream that someday everyone will be repulsed by the thought of using a firearm for lawful purposes such as hunting and recreation. But just as surely some of California’s citizens disagree with that view. Many hope their sons and daughters will learn to responsibly use firearms for lawful purposes. Firearms are controversial products, and don’t cease to be so when used by minors. But as the majority opinion explains well, there are a variety of ways a minor can lawfully use firearms in California. And the State of California may not attempt to reduce the demand for lawful conduct by suppressing speech favoring that conduct while permitting speech in opposition. That is textbook viewpoint discrimination.

That is precisely what California did in Assembly Bill 2751. Under this law, those who want to discourage minors from lawfully using firearms (such as for hunting or shooting competitions) are free to communicate their messages. Certain speakers (“firearm industry members”) who want to promote the sale of firearms to minors, however, are silenced. I agree with the majority opinion that, even assuming intermediate scrutiny applies, California’s nascent speech code cannot withstand it. I write separately to emphasize that laws like AB 2751, which attempt to use the coercive power of the state to eliminate a viewpoint from public discourse, deserve strict scrutiny. Our circuit’s precedent is ambiguous about whether viewpoint- discriminatory laws that regulate commercial speech are subject to strict scrutiny. In the appropriate case, we should make clear they are…

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