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Gun manufacturers could be looking down the wrong end of the barrel soon, as the California Supreme Court on Tuesday appeared to have its sights set on granting county governments limited regulatory power over the possession and sale of guns. The touchy topic came before the court’s seven justices after gun show promoters, in two separate suits, challenged a Los Angeles County ordinance banning the sales of guns and ammunition on county property and an Alameda County law prohibiting the possession of firearms on its territory. Attorneys for the promoters — who face a large loss in revenue because of lost access to both counties’ fairgrounds — argued in court Tuesday that the controversial ordinances are pre-empted by state laws that regulate the possession of firearms. But that argument took hits from just about every justice on the panel. Justice Joyce Kennard told the gun lawyer in one of the arguments, Donald Kilmer Jr., a San Jose, Calif., solo, that he and his counterpart in the other argument, Michael Wright of Los Angeles’ Case, Knowlson, Jordan & Wright, face the same hurdle. “There is no specific state law,” she said very precisely, “that prohibits the conduct that the ordinances in question are prohibiting on county property.” In Great Western Shows Inc. v. Los Angeles County, S091547, Great Western — which had operated three gun and collector shows at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds for 22 years — claimed that the county’s gun sales ordinance infringed on its commercial free-speech rights. A Los Angeles federal court judge didn’t rule on the free-speech claims, but held that Great Western had “raised a substantial question” about whether Los Angeles County was pre-empted by state law. In Nordyke v. King, S091549, Russell and Sally Nordyke, who had promoted gun shows at the Alameda County, Calif., fairgrounds since 1991, made similar arguments, but were denied relief by another federal court judge. The Alameda ordinance was passed after shootings disrupted the Alameda County Fair in 1998. Both cases eventually went to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which forwarded them to the California Supreme Court, saying California case law was mixed on the issue and that it would be better if state law was followed in reaching an ultimate conclusion. The cases have generated much interest, with several groups — such as the California Rifle and Pistol Association, the National Association of Arms Shows and the Los Angeles County Bar Association — weighing in with amicus curiae briefs. On Tuesday, the lawyers for the gun show promoters made the argument that the two counties had simply overstepped their bounds. The plaintiffs’ attorneys said that while the Los Angeles law purports to prohibit gun sales and the Alameda ordinance prohibits gun possession, what both do in reality is enact a complete ban on gun shows, which, they said, is a violation of promoters’ First Amendment rights to free speech. “But how can it be a complete ban if it applies only to county property?” Justice Ming Chin asked Wright. A few minutes later, he pointed out that state law permits counties to regulate the “time, place and manner” of gun sales. “And isn’t this a restriction on place?” Both Wright and Kilmer also argued that both counties’ ordinances are invalid because the fairgrounds at issue were located inside cities, specifically Pomona in Los Angeles County and Pleasanton in Alameda County. “Here they are trying to regulate the conduct of the public,” Wright said, “and they can’t do that in a sovereign city.” Lawrence Hafetz, a senior deputy Los Angeles county counsel, and Richards, Watson & Gershon partner T. Peter Pierce, speaking for Alameda County officials, argued that state laws clearly left counties the authority to exercise some control over gun sales as long as they don’t duplicate or conflict with state law. “This ordinance,” Pierce said, “does not conflict state law or duplicate state law.” What if there is some overlapping? Justice Chin asked. “This ordinance is supplemental to state law,” Hafetz said. “Supplemental laws are allowed.” When asked by Justice Janice Rogers Brown why the counties don’t simply ban gun shows altogether, Hafetz said there were concerns that would definitely raise constitutional questions about violating free speech. “This [ordinance] is very limited,” he said. “It’s a geographic limitation on when dealers can sell guns.” Justice Kennard seemed to sum up much of the justices’ thinking when she reminded one of the gun-promoter lawyers that the bans related only to county-owned property, not all property within the counties. “Isn’t one largely free,” she asked, “to do with one’s property what one sees fit?”

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