The latest chapter in a sustained campaign to undo Oklahoma’s new constitutional carry law has ended, with a court ruling adding a fresh defeat to what has so far been an unbroken series of failures.
The war on constitutional carry in Oklahoma began, after the state legislature passed HB 2597, an NRA-backed bill to amend the “unlawful carry” crime at 21 Okla. Stat. Ann. § 1272 to allow carrying a firearm upon or about the person, or in a purse or other container, without a license. The amendment applies only to adults who are not otherwise disqualified by state or federal law from possessing a firearm and who are not carrying the firearm in furtherance of a crime. The Oklahoma House passed the bill on an overwhelming 70-30 vote, and the bill was approved in the Oklahoma Senate by an even greater margin of 40-6.
After Governor Kevin Stitt signed HB 2597 into law, opponents of the bill, including Rep. Jason Lowe (D-Oklahoma City) and Bloomberg’s Everytown/Moms, resorted to a referendum petition, Referendum Petition No. 26, State Question No. 803, seeking to repeal the law before its November 1st effective date. (Referendum petitions ask voters to approve or reject a bill of the legislature; initiative petitions ask voters to approve or reject the proposed law contained in the petition.)
Despite claims by Everytown that “permitless carry is opposed by 81 percent of Oklahomans,” the referendum proponents were not even close to meeting the necessary signature threshold of 59,320 to get the referendum on the ballot, and their petition was dismissed by the Oklahoma Supreme Court for “numerical insufficiency” on October 7, 2019.
The same day, Rep. Lowe and four other plaintiffs filed a state court lawsuit claiming that the new carry law was “invalid and void in its entirety,” and seeking a temporary and permanent injunction to prevent it from going into effect. On October 31, Judge Don Andrews of the district court denied the application. The plaintiffs’ emergency motion for a temporary injunction and stay of that order was likewise denied by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
Early this year, Rep. Lowe introduced a bill, HB 3357, to restrict the firearm rights of Oklahomans by repealing permitless carry. Legislators were unconvinced by Lowe’s assertions that the new carry law was “a ticking time bomb, and it has been an utter disaster,” and his bill went nowhere after failing to pick up more than a single vote in a House Committee hearing in February.
Next, Rep. Lowe and two other proponents sought to restore the law as it was prior to the enactment of HB 2597 using an initiative petition, Initiative Petition No. 425 for State Question No. 809 (“SQ 809”).
The 44-page petition was filed with the Oklahoma Secretary of State in February with the objective of having the proposed measure placed before voters in the 2020 election. However, SQ 809 was not a straightforward repeal of HB 2597, as it retained some of the changes made by that law.
Oklahoma state law requires that initiative petitions follow certain rules. One of these is that voters being asked to sign must be presented with an accurate “gist” or summary of the proposal on the top margin of each signature sheet. The purpose is to prevent fraud and deceit by placing would-be signers on notice of the actual changes being sought and the practical effect of the petitioned measure on existing law.
The Oklahoma Second Amendment Association (OK2A) brought court proceedings challenging SQ 809 as noncompliant with this requirement.
The state’s attorney general, Michael J. Hunter, filed a brief also asking that the petition be struck as invalid. SQ 809’s gist, he claimed, “lacked transparency” by omitting “key provisions necessary to make an informed decision” and was “affirmatively mislead[ing]” for suggesting “that the proposed law makes changes that it does not.”
On June 23, a nine-judge panel of the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in the matter and unanimously held that the gist of SQ 809 was legally insufficient. (One judge filed a partial dissent from the majority’s conclusion on the confiscation provision, but otherwise concurred with the remaining findings.)
The court identified several deficiencies. The use of the word “restores” in the gist was both confusing and misleading. Not only did this require potential signatories to know the law as it was prior to HB 2597, SQ 809 did not completely “restore” this prior law because it retained several aspects of HB 2597.
Further, the language of the gist gave “the false impression” that the existing law did not prohibit handguns on college, university, or technology center property, and that SQ 809 would change the law to create a “campus carry” ban. “Handguns are already prohibited on the campuses, and that will continue whether or not SQ 809 is approved.”
Another inaccurate provision referred to the confiscation of firearms. The gist stated that SQ 809 “generally prohibits confiscation of firearms during traffic stops when any person in the vehicle holds a valid handgun license.” The existing law prohibits confiscation without regard to whether anyone in the vehicle has a license. The majority found the sentence was misleading because it failed to accurately explain SQ 809’s effect on the existing law (by making confiscation easier).
The initiative petition was declared invalid and was ordered struck from the ballot. A copy of the opinion, In re Initiative Petition No. 425, State Question No. 809, is posted online at https://law.justia.com/cases/oklahoma/supreme-court/2020/118665.html.
The purpose of the legislature is to implement laws that reflect the will of the people. A brief filed on behalf of Governor Stitt in the proceedings to overturn the bill warned that “[a]llowing an aggrieved litigant, particularly an individual legislator on the losing side of a vote, to enjoin duly enacted state laws makes the courts an agent in thwarting the democratic process, undermining the rule of law and the separation of powers.”
Despite this latest fiasco, though, we have little doubt that the anti-gun crowd – including this “legislator on the losing side of a vote,” will continue their assault on the freedom of Oklahoma’s gun owners.