Attorney General Bonta Files Appeal in Defense of California’s Unsafe Handgun Act

Monday, March 27, 2023
Contact: (916) 210-6000,

Urges Ninth Circuit to immediately halt portions of district court order blocking enforcement of certain provisions of the Act

SAN FRANCISCO — California Attorney General Rob Bonta today filed notice to appeal a district court order that would allow, for the first time in nearly two decades, firearm dealers to sell additional models of semiautomatic pistols that fail to meet the requirements of the Unsafe Handgun Act (UHA). The provisions of the UHA that are at issue are designed to prevent accidental deaths and injuries. California is also seeking from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals a stay of the preliminary injunction against these UHA requirements, which have been proven to prevent deaths and injuries from accidental discharge. If granted, the emergency motion to partially stay the preliminary injunction would halt the portions of the Central District of California’s order striking down the UHA’s requirements that semiautomatic pistols have a chamber load indicator and a magazine disconnect mechanism before they may be sold at retail.

“California’s commonsense gun safety laws save lives, and the Unsafe Handgun Act is no exception,” said Attorney General Bonta. “Accidental shootings are preventable. The fact that children under five are the most likely victims makes these accidental gun deaths even more tragic and inexcusable. As weapons become faster, more powerful, and more deadly, this risk only increases. Flooding the marketplace with unsafe semiautomatic pistols that do not meet necessary safety requirements poses a serious threat to public health and safety, especially for children and young adults.” 

The UHA was originally enacted over two decades ago in response to the proliferation of low-cost, cheaply made handguns that posed consumer safety risks. Under the UHA, the California Department of Justice (DOJ) compiles and maintains a Roster of Certified Handguns that meet certain public safety requirements. Generally, a handgun must appear on the roster to be sold by a California firearm dealer. 

When the UHA was first enacted, revolvers and pistols were required to have safety devices and pass drop safety and firing tests at independent laboratories in order to be added to the roster. Those requirements are not at issue in this litigation. 

The UHA has since been amended, adding additional safety requirements for semiautomatic pistols including that a new semiautomatic pistol must have:

  • A chamber load indicator that indicates if the pistol is loaded;
  • A magazine disconnect mechanism that prevents the pistol from firing when the magazine is not inserted; and
  • Microstamping capabilities that allow law enforcement to trace a shell casing to the pistol that fired it.

 DOJ is filing an appeal to overturn the district court’s preliminary injunction, and filing an emergency motion to stay, or halt, the portions of the order that would ban enforcement of the UHA’s requirements that semiautomatic pistols for retail sale have a chamber load indicator and magazine disconnect mechanism. The motion does not seek to immediately stop the part of the court’s decision enjoining the microstamping requirement.

Attorney General Bonta's findings cite a number of serious concerns if the district court order were not halted as the state appeals to the appellate court. Semiautomatic pistol manufacturers can be expected to flood DOJ’s Bureau of Firearms with up to a thousand requests to add semiautomatic pistols that lack the three challenged UHA requirements. There are currently 800 models of handguns available for purchase in California, including 32 semiautomatic pistols with chamber load indicators and magazine disconnect mechanisms. Without a stay, manufacturers will undoubtedly seek to expand the proportion of firearms available on the primary market that lack these commonsense safety features. There is no reason or urgency to add to the market many more models of semiautomatic pistols without the UHA’s safety mechanisms, especially given the risk to public safety and research showing that in states where there are more guns, unintentional firearms death are shown to increase.

Since the UHA went into effect in 2001, accidental shootings have decreased. If the entirety of the law were ultimately overturned, it can be expected that the opposite outcome would occur. The rate of accidental shooting deaths in California decreased by two-thirds between 2014 and 2018, after chamber load indicators and magazine disconnect mechanisms were required for new models added to the Roster— compared to 1996 to 2000 — before they were required, with a 13.4 percent decrease in self-inflicted injuries and a 12.7 percent decrease in unintentional injuries during this time period, as cited by the plaintiffs in the lawsuit challenging the law.

The notice of appeal can be found here. A copy of the brief will be made available here.

Although the United States is an outlier when compared to gun violence in other wealthy nations, California has one of the lowest rates of firearm mortality in the country — 44th in the nation. Only Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, New York, and Connecticut have lower firearm mortality rates.  Notably, all of these states received a “B” or better on Gifford’s Law Center’s 2021 Annual Gun Law Scorecard, an assessment of the strength of each state’s gun safety laws. California received an “A” for having “the strongest gun laws in the United States.”

This is no accident. In 2005, California’s firearm mortality was much more in line with other large states like Texas and Florida.  Since then, California has tightened its gun laws, including through its Unsafe Handgun Act.  Florida and Texas have gone in the opposite direction.  During that time period, California’s firearm mortality rate dropped, while the rate has increased dramatically in Florida and Texas. The average firearm mortality rate in the United States is 13.7 per 100,000 people. California’s stands at 8.5 per 100,000. Texas is higher than the national average, at 14.2 per 100,000. 

Find more facts and information about California’s strategy to reduce gun violence through DOJ’s Office of Gun Violence Prevention.

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