The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit on Friday ruled that a federal lawsuit against Boulder’s local gun ordinance should wait until the Colorado Supreme Court renders a decision on whether such regulations violate state law.
In May 2018, the Boulder city council passed an ordinance to ban the sale and possession of “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines in city limits, while also raising the minimum age for gun possession to 21. The law encompassed all semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns with a range of specified characteristics related to grips, stocks or magazines.
Afterward, several plaintiffs sued, including the Boulder Rifle Club; General Commerce LLC, which owns the Bison Tactical firearms store in Boulder; Tyler Faye; Mark Ringer; and Jon C. Caldara (who is also a Colorado Politics contributor). While the city believed it was acting within its home-rule authority granted under the state constitution, the plaintiffs argued that “[a] local government may not enact an ordinance, regulation, or other law that prohibits the sale, purchase, or possession of a firearm that a person may lawfully sell, purchase, or possess under state or federal law.”
Consequently, they alleged violations of the Colorado constitution and multiple provisions of the U.S. Constitution. A federal district court deferred its ruling until the Colorado Supreme Court had a chance to determine whether state law preempted the local regulations.
Writing for the three-member appeals panel, senior circuit Judge Stephanie K. Seymour noted that an abstention is appropriate in cases where state law is unclear, as long as the decision is not arbitrary or unreasonable.
“Both sides agree that the Boulder City Ordinance conflicts with Colorado statutes,” Seymour wrote. The question was whether the ordinance pertains to state matters, local matters under the jurisdiction of home rule, or a mixture of both.
The appeals court found only one similar case, in which state Supreme Court justices split evenly on the question of whether Denver’s gun laws were permissible under home rule authority. In that instance, a lower court found that several provisions in the laws were entirely local in nature.
Pointing to the lack of a Supreme Court majority on the matter as “not only uncertain but also potentially decisive,” Seymour referenced a 1941 court case out of Texas that produced a three-prong test for whether a federal court should hold off on deciding cases with state law implications.
One of the considerations was whether state action would affect federal proceedings, which Seymour answered in the affirmative. “If the state court were to conclude that the Colorado statutes preempt the Boulder ordinance, there would be no need for us to resolve the federal constitutional questions,” she wrote, adding that “Plaintiffs do not allege any impediment to bringing their preemption claim in state court.”
Concluding that “a decision by this court would risk intrusion into important state functions,” Seymour dismissed the plaintiffs’ argument that a deferral should not happen in claims alleging constitutional violations. Because a related lawsuit is pending at the state level, the circuit panel upheld the abstention.
The case is Jon C. Caldara et al. v. City of Boulder et al.