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California bill would allow citizens to enforce weapons ban

A new bill in California would allow private citizens go after gun makers in the same way Texas lets them target abortion providers.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday backed legislation that would let private citizens enforce the state’s ban on assault weapons. It’s modeled after a Texas law that lets private citizens enforce that state’s ban on abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected.

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“If Texas can use a law to ban a woman’s right to chose and to put her health at risk, we will use that same law to save lives and improve the health and safety of the people in the state of California,” Newsom said at a news conference Friday.

Texas and other conservative-led states have tried for years to ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, at around six weeks of pregnancy, which is sometimes before the person knows they are pregnant. But the states' attempts have been blocked by the courts.

But Texas’ new abortion law is unique in that it bars the government from enforcing the law. The idea is if the government can’t enforce the law, it can’t be sued to block it in court. That hasn’t stopped abortion providers from trying to block the law. But so far, the U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority has allowed the abortion law to stay in place pending a legal challenge.

California bill would allow citizens to enforce weapons ban

That decision incensed Newsom and his Democratic allies in the state Legislature. California has banned the manufacture and sale of assault weapons for decades. But last year, a federal judge overturned that ban. The law is still in place while the state appeals the decision.

But the decision inspired Newsom and Democrats in the state Legislature to copy Texas’ abortion law, but make it apply to gun makers instead of abortion providers.

“Our message to the United States Supreme Court is as follows: What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” said Democratic state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, the author of the proposal. “I look forward to rushing a new bill to the governor’s desk to take advantage of that United States Supreme Court guidance.”

The proposal fulfills fears from some gun rights groups, who have opposed the Texas abortion law because they worried liberal states like California would use the same principle to on guns.

“If Texas succeeds in its gambit here, New York, California, New Jersey, and others will not be far behind in adopting equally aggressive gambits to not merely chill but to freeze the right to keep and bear arms,” attorney Erik Jaffe wrote in a legal brief on behalf of the Firearms Policy Coalition, a nonprofit group that advocates for gun rights.

Sandy and Lonnie Phillips of Beaumont said they support the legislation. Their daughter Jessi was one of a dozen people killed in a mass shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012. After her death they founded a nonprofit called Survivors Empowered to help people impacted by gun violence and advocate for gun legislation.

The couple said they lost everything trying to sue the gun dealer that sold thousands of dollars of ammunition to the shooter. The judge forced them to pay for the gun dealer's legal fees.

"To see her life cut short just because somebody had easy access to a gun, and easy access to ammunition, and the only thing that has changed since our shooting is that the 100-round drum that the killer used jammed that night — and that saved a lot of people's lives because it jammed — the only thing that’s changed since then is that that particular magazine doesn’t jam anymore. They fixed it," said Sandy Phillips.

Lonnie Phillips added, "They fixed the guns but they didn’t fix the laws. We’re going backwards here. We need to change that."

He also said changes need to happen on a national level in order to make a real difference. "The laws need to be strengthened so we can’t have a 17-year-old going in that already has a history of mental problems and buy a weapon without being flagged."

KPBS reached out to local Second Amendment rights activists for comment but so far has not received a response.