Judge rules California’s detachable magazine ban unconstitutional, state appeals | Courthouse News Service
Monday, November 27, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge rules California’s detachable magazine ban unconstitutional, state appeals

A Southern California judge called the law an "extreme ban" that violated Californians' Second Amendment rights.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — California will soon have to stop enforcing its ban on gun owners having detachable magazines that hold more than 10 rounds after a federal judge in San Diego ruled on Friday that the law is unconstitutional.

In his 71-page order, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee, deemed the law, in scathing detail, an “extreme ban” that curtails Californians Second Amendment rights to buy and own weaponry for self defense, weaponry that can be owned by residents of other states. 

“In so doing, the state denies a citizen the federal constitutional right to use common weapons of their own choosing for self-defense. There have been, and there will be, times where many more than 10 rounds are needed to stop attackers, yet under this statute, the state says ‘too bad,’" Benitez wrote in his order.

He added: "On the other hand, you can become a criminal, too. So, the previously law-abiding California citizen who buys and keeps at her bedside a nationally popular Glock 17 (with its standard 17-round magazine) becomes the criminal, because the state dictates that a gun with a 17-round magazine is not well suited for home defense.”

Critically, Benitez ruled that the state failed to find similar or historical analogue laws regulating guns based on their firing or ammunition capacity in laws passed in either 1791, when the Second Amendment itself was passed, or later in the 1860’s, a requirement for all gun regulations after last year’s Supreme Court case New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, which held that New York’s concealed carry laws were unconstitutional, that carrying a gun in public is a constitutional right, and that a local government has to justify its own gun regulations by showing they’re consistent with gun regulations from the 18th and 19th century.     

“So, the state must demonstrate that its extreme ban is consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearms regulation. As explained below, there is no national tradition of prohibiting or regulating firearms based on firing capacity or ammunition capacity,” Benitez wrote. 

In his ruling, Benitez points out that detachable magazines themselves were not invented until the late 19th century. In 1990, New Jersey was the first state to regulate detachable magazines, and then California later in 2000. 

“A historical tradition of magazine bans, this is not,” Benitez wrote. 

The state cited a number of other historical laws, all of which Benitez dismissed. The state also argued that high capacity magazines are “dangerous and unusual,” that people who own those types of weapons aren’t using them for self defense, and that magazines are accessories themselves, not essential parts of guns.  

“Numbers vary, but some estimate that 81 million Americans own between 415 and 456 million firearms. Further, millions of Americans across the country own large capacity magazines,” Benitez wrote.

“Why are larger magazines chosen for self-defense? Crime happens a lot. One recent estimate holds that guns are needed defensively approximately 1,670,000 times a year," he added. "Woe to the victim who runs out of ammunition before armed attackers do. The police will mark the ground with chalk, count the number of shell casings, and file the report.”

In one footnote in the order, Benitez goes into sometimes lurid detail about crimes across the country where victims fend off their actors by firing in some cases dozens of bullets.    

“The adoption of the Second Amendment was a freedom calculus decided long ago by our first citizens who cherished individual freedom with its risks more than the subservient security of a British ruler or the smothering safety of domestic lawmakers. The freedom they fought for was worth fighting for then, and that freedom is entitled to be preserved still,” Benitez wrote. 

Hours after the order, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit. 

“In the past half-century, large-capacity magazines have been used in about three-quarters of gun massacres with 10 or more deaths and in 100 percent of gun massacres with 20 or more deaths,” Bonta said in a press release on Friday. “We will continue to fight for our authority to keep Californians safe from weapon enhancements designed to cause mass casualties. The Supreme Court was clear that Bruen did not create a regulatory straitjacket for states — and we believe that the district court got this wrong. We will move quickly to correct this incredibly dangerous mistake. We will not stop in our efforts to protect the safety of communities and Californians’ rights to go about their business without fear of becoming victims of gun violence, while at the same time respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.”

Benitez also ordered a temporary stay of his ruling for 10 days.

"Today's rulings represent continued affirmation that the Bruen decision, and Heller before that, represent a sea change in the way courts must look at these absurdly restrictive laws," wrote Chuck Michel, the president of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in the case, in an email. "Sure, the state will appeal, but the clock is ticking on laws that violate the Constitution like this one."

Attorneys for California’s Department of Justice did not immediately return requests for comment.

Categories / Law, Regional, Second Amendment

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.