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California may empower citizens to sue over illegal firearms

Two brothers have been arrested in connection with the mass shooting in Sacramento over the weekend. It's the deadliest mass shooting in the state's history. Now victims’ rights advocates and legislators say the shooting has strengthened their resolve to pass tougher gun laws.

For all California's nation-leading attempts to regulate firearms, the state has not found a way to deter those happy to skirt the laws with stolen or homemade and increasingly prevalent “ghost” guns.

In just two recent examples, police say the first weapon recovered after gunmen killed six people and wounded 12 in downtown Sacramento early Sunday had been stolen and converted to being capable of automatic gunfire. The homemade assault weapon a father used a month ago and a few miles away to kill his three daughters, their chaperone and then himself was unregistered.

“People argue that we’ve got the toughest gun laws in the nation. But they’re clearly not tough enough,” Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg said Monday.


Victim advocates Sandy and Lonnie Phillips immediately thought of the families affected.

"The trauma, we immediately think of the trauma," said Sandy Phillips. She and her husband Lonnie said they immediately thought of the victims’ families when they saw the news of Sunday’s mass shooting. They know that pain. Their 24-year-old daughter, Jessica Ghawi, known as Jessi, was killed in a mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater in 2012.

"She was the light of our life and we were so proud of the woman she had become," said Sandy, adding that her daughter was a journalist and aspiring sports reporter who was about to get her big break.

The latest mass shooting in a nightclub area blocks from the state Capitol renewed calls for tougher firearms laws from President Joe Biden. Biden called for Congress to take many of the steps nationwide that California already has in place — imposing background checks, banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, and outlawing ghost guns.

RELATED: California won't require parents with guns to tell schools


Sandy and Lonnie are now dedicated to helping victims and survivors of gun violence through their nonprofit 'Survivors Empowered.'

"That’s what Jessi would have wanted us to be doing. She had a huge heart for others, she had a huge heart [for those] that were suffering or needed help," she said.

They support California’s tough gun laws and the package of new ones, including two that would allow private citizens to sue anyone in the gun industry whose product caused them harm.

The most populous state will consider an innovative new approach Tuesday when Hertzberg, at the urging of Gov. Gavin Newsom, expects to take the first step to advance a bill allowing private citizens to sue anyone who distributes illegal assault weapons, parts that can be used to build weapons, guns without serial numbers, or .50 caliber rifles.

The penalty: at least $10,000 in civil damages for each weapon, plus attorneys fees.

But the bill would not bar anyone from possessing or using the weapons, though they're illegal under other laws. And it would not include stolen weapons unless they are otherwise made illegal, for instance by filing off the serial number.

“It's going to have hopefully a chilling effect on folks with ghost guns or assault weapons,” Hertzberg said. "You’ve got to have millions of eyeballs looking for these guns. If someone flashes one, talks about it, all of a sudden there’s an incentive among the public in a way that there’s never been before to try to pull them off the street.”

Yet, Hertzberg's bill is patterned after a similar Texas law allowing citizens to go after those who provide or assist in providing abortions. And even if it becomes law, Hertzberg's bill will automatically be invalidated if the Texas law is eventually ruled unconstitutional.

"Federal legislation passed in 2005 that shields the gun manufacturing industry specifically from some of these harms," said State Assemblymember Chris Ward, who represents San Diego’s 78th District. He said people like the Phillips are why he introduced AB 1594, a law that would override that federal law allowing private citizens to sue anyone in the gun industry. "Anybody that is in the gun industry and anybody in the chain, from production, manufacturing, down to the point of sale who is violating a state or local nuisance ordinance they would be held liable for the harm caused by their products."

He said this latest mass shooting strengthens his resolve to continue the fight. "Heartbreaking, I think about the victims … I don’t want something to become so numb that we’re complacent that we accept this as a normal."

Although there are those who are advocating for tighter gun restrictions, there are those who consider a new bill redundant.

“This is tit for tat political gamesmanship, which is the worst reason to be passing some kind of a bill," said Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association and an attorney who wrote a book about California's complicated gun laws. “You’re going to deputize a bunch of amateurs — non-lawyers, non-cops — to judge a neighbor’s actions and then give them the right to drag them into court over it."

Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which generally favors firearms restrictions, hasn't taken a position on the bill.

The center's state policy director, attorney Ari Freilich, said the bill “would essentially bring more enforcement oversight to some specific criminal laws in California."

“It’s not something that’s really been tried before," Freilich said.

He wouldn't predict if it would be effective, but said the proposal has some “potential challenges.” Among them is encouraging civil actions to punish crimes, and establishing “a bounty” to be collected by those who haven't been directly harmed.

His organization is backing other bills, including one that would make it easier for people to sue gun companies for liability in shootings that cause injuries or death. Two other bills also target firearm parts and guns without serial numbers, and those made with 3D printers.

Groups like the San Diego County Gun Owners Association argue passing more laws in California only punishes legal gun owners, not the criminals who will continue to commit violent crimes despite the more than 100 state laws already in place. And they will continue to challenge the laws, they say violate the Second Amendment, in court.

The Phillips said if California’s gun laws were to be implemented nationwide, it would prevent more tragedies like the one that took their daughter ten years ago and the six people this week.

"We look at the statistics before they pass the laws and after ... they're on the books now, we can actually see the difference so we know it works and it's not guessing, it's fact," said Lonnie.

RELATED: California bill would allow citizens to enforce weapons ban

Legislative analysts also raised concerns, including that California's bill might be seen as legitimizing Texas' approach.

Much like the Texas law, the analysts said Hertzberg's legislation is written so broadly that it might ensnare, for instance, “a taxi driver that takes a person to a gun shop,” though Hertzberg said that is not the intent.

Parts use to make weapons are not themselves illegal, but a California law taking effect July 1 will require that they be sold only through licensed firearms dealers.

Sen. Tom Umberg, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a Democrat like Hertzberg and Newsom, said he expects Hertzberg's bill to clear his committee "in order to continue the conversation about the absurdity of the Texas law.”

Umberg said he supports Hertzberg's goal, though he recognizes that "the enforcement mechanism is susceptible to challenge.”

The bill would then have to clear two other committees before getting a full Senate vote. It would also have to pass the Assembly before going to Newsom.

Hertzberg said he thinks his bill could also help root out dangerous domestic abusers like David Mora. Investigators said Mora used a homemade semiautomatic rifle-style weapon with an illegal 30-round ammunition magazine to kill his daughters at a Sacramento church Feb. 28 despite a restraining order barring him from possessing weapons.

“I think this will have bigger teeth, sharper teeth than a court order," Hertzberg said. "This goes to somebody’s bank account. You win this case, you seize their bank account. Their world changes.”

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