The City Council on Monday could follow the lead of Mountain View and Sunnyvale in adopting a list of "sensitive places" where firearms would be banned. While the list will initially include schools, government buildings and polling places, it could later be expanded to include other locations such as playgrounds, health care facilities and homeless shelters.
The scope of the prohibition will ultimately depend on a legal landscape that has been shifting since June 2022, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. The ruling struck down the state of New York's "proper cause" requirement for carrying concealed firearms, which required applicants for conceal and carry permits to demonstrate "a special need for self-protection distinguishable from that of the general community."
In the 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court's conservative majority concluded that the requirement for "proper cause" violates the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it prevents "law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense."
The effects rippled over to California, which has a "good cause" requirement for permits for concealed firearms. Days after the Supreme Court ruling, Attorney General Rob Bonta advised all law enforcement agencies in California that the New York decision makes the "good cause" requirement for carrying concealed weapons in most public places unconstitutional.
"Permitting agencies may no longer require a demonstration of 'good cause' in order to obtain a concealed carry permit," Bonta wrote in his advisory.
The Supreme Court ruling did, however, carve out an exception for "sensitive places" like government buildings, schools and polling places where a ban on firearms is backed by prior rulings and is thus legal. Now, in response to the ruling, various cities and states are testing the boundaries of "sensitive places" by adopting new prohibitions on where concealed firearms can be carried.
New York's new state law, which includes places of worship and public transit in its list of gun-free spaces, is now going through a legal challenge in a federal appeals court after a lower court found that some of its provisions go too far.
And in early February, state Sen. Anthony Portantino introduced Senate Bill 2, which adds a slew of new restrictions on firearms and identifies places where guns cannot be carried. Gov. Gavin Newsom and Bonta issued a statement with Portantino on Feb. 1 endorsing the bill, which includes parks, playgrounds, places of worship, stadiums and libraries on its list of gun-free places.
"When a gun is placed in the wrong hands, it is deadly," Bonta said in the statement. "The Second Amendment is not a regulatory straightjacket — we must protect our communities. The time for thoughts and prayers has long passed; we need brave and immediate action by our leaders — here in California and beyond."
Cities are also taking action, with Sunnyvale approving in December a list of "sensitive places" where guns are banned, which includes public transit and places of worship. And the Mountain View City Council directed its staff last October to explore a wide range of new gun restrictions, including designation of locations where guns are prohibited and restriction on firearm sales near schools, parks and daycare centers.
The city had already passed in 2021 a restriction on guns on city properties. During its October discussion, Mountain View council members all said they would support stronger gun restrictions and alluded to recent mass shootings, including the May 2021 shooting at the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority railyard in San Jose, where a VTA employee killed nine people before killing himself.
"I'm fed up with inaction and I think we need to do everything in our power to be protective of our community members," Council member Sally Lieber said at the meeting.
Whether or not these new restrictions will actually stick remains to be seen. The city of Glendale is now facing a lawsuit over its ban on firearms on city property and SB 2, if approved by the Legislature, is also expected to face a legal challenge, according to a report from Palo Alto City Manager Ed Shikada.
Given the legal uncertainties, Palo Alto is taking a cautious approach with its proposed ordinance. Unlike Sunnyvale, which has taken a more expansive approach, Palo Alto is preparing to limit its gun prohibition to schools, government buildings and polling places-- areas that already enjoy broad legal protection under federal law.
In his report, Shikada wrote that a uniform statewide rule "would make it easier for the public to know what to expect in public and private spaces and for responsible law-abiding residents who carry firearms to understand and comply with the law."
"But at this time, in the absence of state or local legislation prohibiting firearms in specified sensitive locations, the carrying of firearms with a valid permit is lawful in most public and private places in California," Shikada wrote.
The "emergency ordinance" that the council will consider on Monday would kick in immediately. Concurrently, Shikada suggested that if the council wants to consider additional areas where firearms would be prohibited, it can form an ad hoc committee to weigh the risks and benefits of the new restrictions in a confidential setting. The committee's recommendations for expanding the list of local gun-free zones would then return to the full council for approval within 90 days.
If approved, the ordinance would be Palo Alto's second new law in less than a year to restrict firearms. In June 2022, the council unanimously approved a law that would require new gun dealerships to obtain conditional use permits before they could set up shop in the city.