Democrats are using Republicans’ bounty hunter playbook against them. Will it work?

by | Dec 14, 2021 | Gun violence, Policy

Gov. Greg Abbott changed everything when he signed Texas’ Senate Bill 8 into law in May. He knew that ratifying the nation’s most restrictive abortion ban wasn’t just a publicity stunt — not with a 6-3 supermajority for conservatives the Supreme Court. It was a legitimate chance to make good on right-wing evangelicals’ decades-long mission to, at long last, strike down Roe v. Wade

But Abbott, who was just named Texas Monthly’s 2022 Bum Steer of the Year, did more than place a target on the backs of Texas women and the state’s scant abortion providers. He embraced a bounty hunter–style vigilante justice that empowered private citizens to enforce his dangerous anti-abortion law. And he left the door open for Democrats to do the same.

On Saturday — just one day after the Supreme Court chose not to stop SB 8 from going into effect — California Gov. Gavin Newsom did just that. The Democrat announced that, alongside the state’s attorney general and state legislature, he was working to create a bill that would enable private citizens to sue people who sell, make, or distribute assault weapons. The proposed legislation would also apply to “ghost gun” kits, which are DIY firearm assembly packages that produce untraceable weapons without serial numbers. 

“I am outraged by yesterday’s Supreme Court decisions allowing Texas’s ban on most abortion services to remain in place, and largely endorsing Texas’s scheme to insulate its law from the fundamental protections of Roe v. Wade,” Newsom said in a written statement. “But if states can now shield their laws from review by the federal courts that compare assault weapons to Swiss Army knives, then California will use that authority to protect people’s lives, where Texas used it to put women in harm’s way.”

Newsom was clear in his callout of Texas. His proposal will essentially copy and paste the enforcement language from Abbott’s abortion bill. Even the amount that people can be sued for is the same: $10,000. 

In deploying Texas’ bounty hunter strategy here, Newsom is hoping to use a similar loophole to revive California’s long-existing assault weapons ban. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez struck the ban down in June after likening AR-15 rifles to Swiss Army Knives because they’re “a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense weapon.” 

It’s a significant move. If enacted, the law could act as a stopgap for California’s previous ban, which had been in place for 32 years. Perhaps more importantly, though, it could open the floodgates for similar actions by Democratic lawmakers and officials across the country.

During an appearance on The View today, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that she was planning to follow Newsom’s lead.  “We need to hold gun manufacturers and gun distributors liable,” she said, noting that her plan would rely on bounty hunter-style enforcement to enforce a ban on ghost guns.

The chances of these Newsom and James’ efforts paying off are, of course, slim. Unlike on the issue of abortion, it’s reasonable to assume that the federal courts — especially the right-wing-dominated Supreme Court — will be far less receptive to legislative workarounds when it comes to guns. To that point, Texas State Sen. Bryan Hughes, the man who authored SB 8, seemed unfazed by the prospect.

“I would tell Gov. Newsom good luck with that,” Hughes told the Texas Tribune on Monday. “If California takes that route, they’ll find that California gun owners will violate the law knowing that they’ll be sued and knowing that the Supreme Court has their back because the right to keep and bear arms is clearly in the Constitution, and the courts have clearly and consistently upheld it.”

Whether California gun owners and sellers will follow Hughes’ advice by intentionally violating the law in hopes of being sued remains to be seen. But he’s got a legitimate point. Women’s reproductive health and abortion access are, unfortunately, far less protected by our legal system than someone’s ability to easily (and with ghost guns, untraceably) acquire an assault weapon.   

Doomed as they may seem, these efforts by Newsom and James shouldn’t be overlooked or cast aside. Instead, they have to be viewed as harbingers of what’s to come. Indeed, this is likely just the first taste of an avalanche of copycat bills across a myriad of issues that will flood in from around the country. It’s a concerning prospect, for sure. But Texas Republicans, and the Supreme Court, opened up Pandora’s box when they legitimized vigilante justice to sidestep long-standing legal precedent. 

The question is, where will Democrats — who have consistently settled for moral victories while playing by the rules — take things from here? That much remains to be seen. But one thing is clear: They’d be wise to get their hands dirty and try to notch a few victories of their own. 

Photo: Scott Heins/Getty Images

Contributing Writer/Podcaster | + posts
Based in his hometown of Austin, David is a political reporter and feature writer whose work has appeared in the likes of The Washington Post, the Texas Observer, and Public Health Watch. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas, where he studied government and wrote for the school’s newspaper, The Daily Texan. In addition to providing a blend of reported pieces and opinion columns for the Texas Signal, David is a frequent guest on the outlet’s signature podcasts. You can find him playing basketball or hanging out poolside in his free time.

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