Federal Judge Overturns California’s Ban on Assault Weapons

An AR-15 style rifle for sale at a gun shop. (AP file photo/Alex Brandon)

(CN) — A federal judge on Friday declared California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons unconstitutional but allowed the state 30 days to appeal.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee, said in his 94-page opinion that “under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law 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 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.”

He put a 30-day stay on the permanent injunction blocking enforcement of the ban in order to allow Attorney General Rob Bonta to file an appeal.

The lawsuit against the ban 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.

More than 185,000 assault weapons are registered in the state, according to Judge Benitez.

“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” he wrote. “One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles. The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter.”

In a statement made Friday evening, Governor Gavin Newsom called the decision a “slap in the face” to shooting victims.

“Today’s decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period. As the son of a judge, I grew up with deep respect for the judicial process and the importance of a judge’s ability to make impartial fact-based rulings, but the fact that this judge compared the AR-15 — a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield — to a Swiss Army Knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon.”

The state’s restriction on assault weapons dates back to 1989. In 2019, Benitez ruled against another state ban on large capacity magazines, which the state defined as “any ammunition feeding device with a capacity to accept more than 10 rounds.” 

That 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.  

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