Judge upholds Alameda County ban on fairground guns
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
(04-18) 11:01 PDT PLEASANTON -- A federal judge has upheld Alameda County's ban on possessing guns on county property, rejecting a free-speech claim by former promoters of gun shows at the fairgrounds in Pleasanton.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins of San Francisco was dated March 31 but was not received by lawyers until Tuesday, as the nationwide debate over gun control was being rekindled by Monday's slaughter of 32 people by a gunman at Virginia Tech University.
Donald Kilmer, lawyer for the gun show operators who challenged the ordinance when it was enacted in 1999, said they hadn't decided yet whether to appeal. If they do appeal, he said, they will include a claim that the Constitution protects an individual right to possess guns -- a claim that has been rejected by federal courts in California but was accepted by the appeals court that overturned a Washington, D.C., handgun ban last month.
Kilmer also said the Alameda County ordinance was "an attack on gun culture'' that violates the constitutional right of free speech. But Jenkins said the measure was based on legitimate safety concerns unrelated to speech.
"The county's interest is not in suppressing plaintiffs' messages about guns,'' but in "the prevention of violence and the preservation of safety on public property,'' the judge said. He said the ban has "a natural and probable effect of limiting the risk of overall shootings and gun violence on county property.''
County supervisors passed the ordinance in response to a Fourth of July shooting and melee on the fairgrounds in 1998 that injured 16 people. The measure did not prohibit gun shows, but its prohibition on firearms on county property prompted cancellations from promoters who had previously exhibited and sold guns at the county fair.
The lawsuit resulted in a state Supreme Court ruling in 2002 that cities and counties can restrict guns on public property. The U.S. Supreme Court denied a hearing in 2004 on a claim by Kilmer's clients that gun possession is protected by the Constitution's Second Amendment. Jenkins' latest ruling dismissed an amended version of the suit that focused on claims of free speech and discrimination.
The plaintiffs argued that their gun shows were, in part, an expression of their opinion that people should have the right to possess firearms. They also noted that the county allows gun possession in some entertainments at the fair, such as the Scottish Games and an outdoor sports exhibit.
But Jenkins said the guns used in those exhibits are taken from the participants after the shows, unlike those shown and sold at gun shows. He also said gun show operators could express their opinions and even sell guns at the fairgrounds, if they chose, without bringing actual weapons onto the grounds.