By Dan Whitcomb
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Thursday struck down a requirement by San Diego County that residents show "good cause" to carry a concealed firearm, a ruling that could force local governments across California to revisit the way they license handguns.
A three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, acting on a 2009 lawsuit, ruled in a 2-1 decision that San Diego County's restrictions amounted to an unconstitutional infringement on citizens' Second Amendment rights to bear arms.
Coupled with a California state law that largely bans the open carrying of firearms in public, San Diego County's "good cause" rules on concealed weapons effectively bar residents from carrying a gun altogether, the panel said.
"In California, the only way that the typical, responsible, law-abiding citizen can carry a weapon in public for the lawful purpose of self-defense is with a concealed carry permit. And, in San Diego County, that option has been taken off the table," Justice Thomas O'Scannlain wrote in the 77-page opinion for the majority.
California, which has enacted some of the nation's strictest gun laws, allows residents to carry a concealed weapon if they meet several requirements, including completing a training course, demonstrating good moral character and establishing "good cause" to have the gun.
Interpretation of the statute is left to individual jurisdictions, with San Diego County taking one of the most restrictive stances by refusing to accept self-defense or concern for personal safety as a "good cause."
Instead, applicants must demonstrate a special need or a specific risk in order to establish good cause.
Lawyers for both sides agreed that the court's ruling, if upheld, would force cities and counties across California to issue permits to anyone who met the other requirements and who sought to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense.
"The 9th Circuit confirmed that the government no longer gets to pick and choose which law-abiding citizens may exercise their constitutional right to carry a firearm for self-defense," said attorney Chuck Michel, who represented the plaintiffs challenging San Diego's restrictions in the case.
"This is a landmark ruling for the state of California. No longer will criminals have the security of knowing that their victims are defenseless in public," Michel said.
James Chapin, San Diego senior deputy county counsel, said that officials there were reviewing the decision and would consider an appeal to the full 9th Circuit.
He called the plaintiffs' lawsuit an attempted "end run" around state law that essentially bars open carrying of firearms except by members of law enforcement or the military, as well as the restrictions on concealed carry.
"If you want to challenge state law, you need to challenge the statute, not the execution," Chapin said.
In dissenting from the majority opinion, 9th Circuit Justice Sidney Thomas wrote that the U.S. Supreme Court had found it constitutional to place restrictions on carrying concealed weapons in public.
He said the 9th Circuit panel's majority went beyond the legal questions posed in the lawsuit to render a ruling that "not only strikes down San Diego County's concealed carry policy, but upends the entire California firearm regulatory scheme."
(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)