Camarillo man’s lawsuit highlights larger fight for gun rights advocates amid pandemic

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Ventura County’s latest public health order amid the coronavirus pandemic reopened gun stores, but Second Amendment advocates are seeking a court ruling stating the closure was wrong in the first place. 

“Because if the courts rule that the closing of the gun stores was unconstitutional, then we’ll have a ruling that will be citable,” said Ronda Baldwin-Kennedy, an attorney for a Camarillo man who alleges the county violated his rights. 

Such a ruling would stand as precedent that the practice is not allowed under the law. Experts predict a possible second wave of COVID-19 cases could hit, causing some of the county and state stay-at-home orders to be issued again. Baldwin-Kennedy doesn’t want gun shops to be lumped in with the affected businesses.

Baldwin-Kennedy filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Donald McDougall of Camarillo over Ventura County’s March 20 public health order that deemed gun shops nonessential and mandated their closure. 

The complaint filed March 28 claimed his constitutional rights were violated and sought a preliminary injunction against the county keeping the stores closed. 

Gun rights groups across the country have filed similar lawsuits in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey and elsewhere. 

In McDougall’s case, a federal judge ruled in Ventura County’s favor, upholding the closure in favor of protecting public health. 

McDougall and Baldwin-Kennedy were preparing for a May 19 hearing where they could argue their injunction case one more time, but the hearing didn’t happen. Ventura County changed its public health order May 7 and loosened some restrictions, including the closure of gun stores. 

“They basically caved a few days before our court hearing,” Baldwin-Kennedy said. 

McDougall, a renewable energy consultant and instructor for the National Rifle Association, said the process started out as a letter to the county and he had hopes of negotiation. Social distancing guidelines and appointment reservations were proposed, Baldwin-Kennedy said.

‘Hot-button issue’

Although arguments about the injunction are over, Baldwin-Kennedy said, the complaint made against the county must go forward. The courts need to weigh in and rule that the closure was unconstitutional and people’s rights were violated, she said. 

Ventura County Counsel Leroy Smith said the county’s perspective is that such a case is of little relevance now that the public health order has changed. 

The latest version moved away from the model of essential and non-essential businesses. Instead, it is more in line with the state’s guidance on the opening of some retailers for curbside pickup, and in the case of local gun shops, by appointment. 

“We think the case is moot now because there’s no longer an order they be closed,” Smith said of the litigation. 

He has previously said the Second Amendment protection in the U.S. Constitution applies to the individual’s rights to own guns, not the stores’ right to remain open.

The next step for the county might be to file a motion to dismiss the complaint. Smith doesn’t anticipate the plaintiffs will side with him on that, he said. They could still claim monetary damages, and it appears the plaintiffs want an advisory ruling saying the county can’t close gun stores.

“It’s a hot-button issue,” Baldwin-Kennedy said. 

Arguments against gun shops being ordered closed have been playing out in different states, with some courts ruling the closures are unconstitutional. One decision out of Massachusetts came right before Ventura County’s public health order changed, Baldwin-Kennedy said. 

“It’s not just our case. There are other cases across the country. It’s very realistic that these cases, one of these cases, could make it to the Supreme Court,” Baldwin-Kennedy said. 

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