The Rise of Vigilante Justice: Texas and California

Street Fighter Newsom vs. Abbott (Photo: Canva Graphic by Rose Cromwell, The Puma Prensa)

by Rose Cromwell, staff writer

In May of 2021, Texas enacted its controversial abortion legislation, known as Senate Bill 8, SB8 or the Texas Heartbeat Act. It deputized citizens to enforce a ban on abortion at six weeks, allowing them to sue anyone who performs a procedure, “aids and abets” a procedure, or intends to aid or abet a procedure. The law bars enforcement by state officials, using citizen enforcement as a work-around to previous rulings protecting access to abortion. The Supreme Court allowed this controversial mechanism to stay in place even though some legal experts were concerned about this mechanism being applied to other laws. Almost immediately after the court’s decision, the Office of the California Governor’s official Twitter account sent out a tweet proposing new gun control legislation, using the same type of mechanism allowing private citizens to sue organizations and people who manufacture or sell ghost gun kits or assault weapons in the state of California.

I think both of these laws are restrictive of citizens’ rights and dangerous, and this new mechanism for enforcing laws allows parties to deputize and pay citizens in order to exercise their agenda, regardless of constitutionality of the underlying laws or court precedent. 

I’m not alone in this sentiment either, with many students on campus having qualms with these laws. Maria Carrillo High School junior Evan Jackson said, “This sort of law shouldn’t exist; its entire purpose is to subvert and avoid judicial review to do things that are unconstitutional.” I wholeheartedly agree that this deputization practice skirts the checks of the justice system because the state isn’t committing the unconstitutional action, but the citizens are authorized to do so. The Supreme Court ruling in December acknowledged this and yet still allowed SB8 to remain in place.

The effect of SB8 is to restrict people’s rights to bodily autonomy, and it is already inspiring a flurry of copycat laws that bring disproportionate harm to minorities and those in the working class with lower income who can’t get out of their state and get an abortion in another. The Texas law and its enforcement mechanism were allowed to stand by the Supreme Court, which Nash attested was proof that “the court doesn’t respect the precedent set before.” 

Carrillo students hold many of the same reservations when it comes to California’s proposed gun control enhancements. Junior Bella Zarate attested that she believed the governor’s proposal was intended to call out hypocrisy, but she stated, “There could’ve been a better, more communicative approach.” She thought the proposed California gun-control law will cause outrage instead of educating people on the dangers of citizen enforcement. 

“we’re seeing a continuous erosion of our democratic systems, an erosion we are remarkably tolerant of and silent about”

Many students agree that we do need some form of gun control legislation, but I’d argue that Newsom’s Twitter proposal doesn’t even show signs of working as good gun control. That proposal attacks ghost guns and ghost gun kits, which are when kits without trackable serial numbers are sold and guns are made at home with a do-it-yourself kit. With step-by-step instructions included in the box, these kits allow owners to build their own untraceable firearms in their own home. These are incredibly dangerous because they avoid what few systems we have to track gun ownership. 

But it’s with the other main target of this proposal that I take issue, the inclusion of assault weapons. There is no solid definition for what an assault weapon is, and this proposal doesn’t provide one of its own.

Under the Clinton administration, a framework for an assault weapon ban was produced, which defined assault weapons as “any semi automatic rifle with a detachable magazine and at least two of the following five items: a folding or telescopic stock; a pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon; a bayonet mount; a flash suppressor or threaded barrel (a barrel that can accommodate a flash suppressor); or a grenade launcher.” This definition is sloppy at best, and leaves massive loopholes. Labeling a rifle an assault weapon because it has a mount where someone might mount a bayonet is nonsensical. Furthermore, gun manufacturers can lazily work around these laws by making minor changes to their firearms. This led to the AR-15 used in the Sandy Hook shooting being legal under Connecticut law. By making a few superficial changes, like excluding a bayonet mount, an AR-15 was no longer an assault weapon. 

Most guns available today are semi-automatic, including handguns, rifles and pistols. All of these weapons–some of which fall under the definitions of assault weapon, and many of which don’t–are all incredibly damaging. We saw very recently that the Oxford shooter was able to do incredible damage with just a handgun.

This proposal from Newsom is a political tool, designed to create outrage over Texas’s law and hopefully motivate change, but at the cost of being terrible gun control legislation that also perpetuates the very type of dangerous enforcement mechanism that avoids our traditional checks and balances. Luckily, Newsom hasn’t gotten a state legislator to propose legislation that matches exactly his office’s proposal. The currently proposed Assembly Bill 1594 seems much smaller in scale and scope, only using Texas’ model to permit suits against negligent manufacturers whose violations result in injury or death.

So what does this all mean? What do we take away from this and where do we go? Well, all I can say is that we’re seeing a continuous erosion of our democratic systems, an erosion we are remarkably tolerant of and silent about. Wherever you fall on the political compass, you can agree that these sorts of laws avoid and undermine judicial review and restrict the rights and freedoms of Americans. Imagine if one of your key values was under attack, and you were being sued for exercising your rights. These laws enable state politicians to finance a horde of citizen vigilantes to attack citizens’ freedoms on their behalf. They are dangerous and should not be allowed to stay in place under any circumstances. 

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