The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued an opinion Thursday sending Christopher Baker's motion for a preliminary injunction back to District Court. Baker filed a lawsuit in 2011 against the Honolulu Police Department after he was denied a license to carry a gun in public for self-defense.
The appeals court said the lower court erred when it ruled that Baker couldn't prove Hawaii's restrictions on carrying firearms violate the Second Amendment.
Baker's attorney, Richard Holcomb, said the decision has broad ramifications for Hawaii, where state law says licenses to carry guns are only given in "exceptional" cases.
"We believe they have validated our position there's a right to carry a firearm outside the home for the purpose of self-defense," he said. "Every citizen has a right to defend themselves."
A Honolulu police spokeswoman said the department won't comment on pending litigation. "We received the 9th Circuit ruling today and we are in the process of reviewing it," said Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong.
The appeals court cited its February opinion in a San Diego case where, "we concluded that the Second Amendment provides a responsible, law-abiding citizen with a right to carry an operable handgun outside the home for the purpose of self-defense."
In light of that ruling, the three-judge panel said, "the district court made an error of law when it concluded that the Hawaii statutes did not implicate protected Second Amendment activity." One judge dissented, noting that Baker argued he needed a weapon to defend himself in his job as a process server, but he was no longer in that business.
The 9th Circuit's ruling means "Baker has a claim and he can challenge Hawaii's statute as being unconstitutional," said University of Hawaii criminal law professor Kenneth Lawson. "I think if people are under the impression they don't have a right to carry a weapon ... it could have an impact."
Baker's lawsuit originally named the state and Gov. Neil Abercrombie as defendants. But a judge dismissed them from the case, because even though it's a state statute, county chiefs of police make the decision to approve licenses to carry guns, said Deputy Attorney General Kendall Moser.
The 9th Circuit ruling gives the state an opportunity to intervene, and Moser said he expects the attorney general's office will do so.
He said it's too early to tell what impact the decision will have: "This is a good step for the plaintiff, but we're not quite there yet."