US judge strikes down California's assault weapons ban
A federal judge ruled Friday that California's three-decade-old assault weapon ban violates the state's constitutional right to bear arms.
US District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego ruled that the state's definition of illegal military-style rifles unconstitutionally denies law-abiding Californians access to weapons that are permitted in the majority of other states and by the US Supreme Court.
"Under no circumstances can the law survive increased scrutiny," Benitez stated.
He issued a permanent restraining order against the law's enforcement but extended it for 30 days to allow state Attorney General Rob Bonta to appeal.
Governor Gavin Newsom blasted the decision, describing it as a "direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians."
The judge defended modern weapons in his 94-page ruling, stating that they were overwhelmingly used for legal purposes.
“Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is an ideal blend of home defense and homeland defense equipment. "Ideal for both home and battle," the judge stated in the introduction to his ruling.
This comparison "completely undermines the decision's credibility and is an insult to the families who have lost loved ones to this weapon," Newsom said in a statement.
“We are not relinquishing this fight, and we will continue to advocate for common sense gun laws that save lives.”
Bonta criticized the ruling and stated that it would be appealed.
California restricted assault weapons for the first time in 1989, and the law has been updated numerous times since then.
Assault weapons, as defined by the law, are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes, mass shootings, and against law enforcement, resulting in increased casualties, the state attorney general's office argued, adding that prohibiting them "furthers the state's critical public safety interests."
Additionally, a surge in sales of over 1.16 million other types of pistols, rifles, and shotguns over the last year — more than a third of which were likely first-time buyers — demonstrates that the assault weapons ban "has not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense," the state argued in a March court filing.
The state argued that similar assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six additional federal district and appeals courts. State officials stated that lifting the ban would allow not only assault rifles, but also assault shotguns and assault pistols.
Benitez, on the other hand, was adamant.
“This is not a case about extraordinary weapons that fall outside the scope of Second Amendment protection. The 'assault weapons' that are prohibited are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns. "Those weapons are lethal and are only useful for military purposes," he stated in his ruling.
Despite California's ban, the judge stated that the state currently registers an estimated 185,569 assault weapons.
“This is an ordinary case involving ordinary guns used in ordinary ways for ordinary purposes,” the ruling stated. “One may be excused if one is convinced by the news media and others that the country is awash in murderous AR-15 assault rifles. The facts, on the other hand, refute this hyperbole, and facts matter."
“In California, murders committed with a knife occur seven times more frequently than murders committed with a rifle,” he added.
Benitez stated in a September preliminary ruling that California's complicated legal definition of assault weapons can trap otherwise law-abiding gun owners in criminal penalties that include the loss of their Second Amendment right to bear arms.
"The burden on the fundamental right to bear arms, if any, is minimal," the state argued, because the weapons can still be used — just not with the modifications that convert them to assault weapons. State officials said that while modifications such as a shorter barrel or collapsible stock make them more concealable, others such as a pistol grip or thumbhole grip make them more lethal by improving their accuracy when fired rapidly.
The lawsuit was filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, the California Gun Rights Foundation, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the Firearms Policy Coalition. It is one of several filed by gun advocacy groups challenging California's stringent firearms laws.
The lawsuit, filed in August 2019, came in the aftermath of a string of deadly mass shootings across the country involving military-style rifles.
It was filed on behalf of gun owners who wish to use high-capacity magazines in their legal rifles or pistols but are unable to do so under California law because doing so would convert them into illegal assault weapons. Unlike military weapons, semi-automatic rifles fire a single bullet with each trigger pull, and the plaintiffs assert that they are legal in 41 states.
California is "one of only a small handful of states that have banned many of the most popular semiautomatic firearms in the country due to the presence of one or more common characteristics, such as pistol grips and threaded barrels," frequently but not exclusively in conjunction with detachable ammunition magazines, according to the lawsuit.
The state is appealing Benitez's 2017 decision upholding the state's nearly two-decade-old prohibition on the sale and purchase of magazines with more than ten bullets.
This decision sparked a weeklong buying spree until the judge halted sales pending the outcome of the appeal. It was upheld by a three-judge appellate panel in August, but the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals announced in March that the case will be reheard by an 11-member panel.
Additionally, the state is appealing Benitez's April 2020 decision invalidating a 2019 California law requiring background checks for anyone purchasing ammunition.
Both of those measures were championed by Newsom during his tenure as lieutenant governor and garnered voter support in a 2016 ballot measure.