Saturday, November 26, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

California Appeals ‘Disturbing’ Dump of Assault Weapons Ban by Federal Judge

Democratic leaders eviscerated a federal judge for overturning the state's first-in-the-nation assault weapons ban and promised to fight for even stricter gun control laws in wake of another mass shooting.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) --- Days after a federal judge nixed one of California’s most stringent gun laws and simultaneously tempered the prospect of a nationwide ban on assault weapons, Governor Gavin Newsom announced Thursday the state will appeal the contentious ruling.

From a San Francisco trauma center renowned for its treatment of gun violence victims --- including a 1993 mass shooting that left eight people dead --- Newsom said California will turn to the Ninth Circuit in hopes of protecting a hallmark of the state’s gun control framework.

“No other state in America has been more progressive and aggressive on gun safety than the state of California,” Newsom told reporters. “Gun safety saves lives period, full stop.”

The 1989 Assault Weapons Control Act bans dozens and of specific makes and models, most notably the popular AK and AR-15 models. It also prohibits certain add-ons such as telescopic stocks and creates a one-feature test for shotguns and handguns.

According to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, eight states have enacted some sort of assault weapons ban with California’s being the most extensive.

But in a late Friday news dump that was instantly condemned by Newsom and the state’s other top elected officials, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez struck down California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons.

The polarizing George W. Bush appointee, who in recent years has become a roadblock to the state’s gun control agenda, ruled “under no level of heightened scrutiny” could the ban survive.

“Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Good for both home and battle,” the Southern District of California judge wrote. “Yet, the state of California makes it a crime to have an AR-15 type rifle. Therefore, this court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional.”

Benitez went on to downplay the threat of assault rifles being used in mass shootings and inexplicably claimed “more people have died from the Covid-19 vaccine than mass shootings in California.” He also ripped news coverage of mass shootings, saying reports are commonly filled with “hyperbole” and added “Californians are three times more likely to be killed by an attacker’s “bare hands, fists, or feet, than by his rifle.”  

The 94-page opinion threw red meat to the gun lobby, including the National Rifle Association which praised it as “beautifully blunt” and applauded Benitez for again pushing back on the state’s “Draconian laws.”

But predictably state Democrats are rallying against the ruling, two weeks after a deranged gunman killed nine of his co-workers and himself in San Jose because he was dissatisfied at work.

Newly installed Attorney General Rob Bonta said California will be undeterred in its quest to pass strict gun laws despite the “shocking ruling.”

“In many ways, the opinion was disturbing and troubling and of great concern,” Bonta said.

The case at hand, Miller v. Bonta, was filed in August 2019 by gun advocacy groups who said the law prevented gun owners from using high-capacity magazines in their legal firearms because they would then be considered assault weapons.

California gun laws date back to the 1960s under then-Governor Ronald Reagan, who signed a bipartisan bill banning the open carry of loaded guns in public settings. The law was spurred after dozens of armed Black Panther Party members gathered inside the Capitol in a civil rights demonstration.

More than 20 years later, the state passed the nation’s first assault weapons ban in 1989 following a deadly shooting at a Stockton elementary school and has since gone on to enact a horde of strong gun laws over the decades.

For example, in recent years lawmakers and voters have combined to enact so-called red-flag laws, bans on high-capacity magazines, background checks for ammunition purchases, mandatory background checks and 10-day waiting periods for gun sales as well as a prohibition of long gun sales to anyone under the age of 21. Meanwhile the state Assembly is considering a new proposal that would raise taxes on gun and ammo sales.

Newsom, who sponsored a sweeping gun control ballot measure overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2016, cast last week’s ruling as dangerous and accused the gun lobby of judge shopping. The former mayor of San Francisco and son of a judge called Benitez a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the NRA.   

In 2019, Benitez ruled against another state ban on large-capacity magazines and the ruling was appealed, but a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit in August 2020 ruled that the law violated the Second Amendment. The state appealed that decision and the Ninth Circuit will rehear the case en banc this month.  

“He’s unserious; Judge Benitez is a stone-cold ideologue,” said the Democratic governor of his judicial adversary. “He will continue to do damage, mark my word.”

The Firearms Policy Coalition hit back, condemning what it called Newsom's "outrageous and callous personal attacks" on Benitez.

"Newsom’s verbal assaults on a long-respected member of the judiciary shows his deep and continuing disrespect for the rule of law, the judiciary, the Constitution, and the human rights of California citizens," the group said in a statement. "Those speakers who attacked Judge Benitez’s character should be ashamed."

Thursday’s appeal asks the Ninth Circuit to extend the current 30-day stay issued by Benitez and keep the law in effect as the litigation continues. Experts predict the case could have a broader impact as it will likely wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court, no matter how the Ninth Circuit rules.

Gun control advocates, including President Joe Biden, are calling for a nationwide ban on assault weapons and other measures in wake of a series of high profile mass shootings in places like California, Colorado and Georgia.

According to the Gun Violence Archive --- which each year keeps a running total of mass shootings in the United States --- there have been 260 such incidents in 2021 as of press time. The group defines a mass shooting as one in which four or more people are killed or injured.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.