As gun advocates celebrated Friday night’s move and state officials vowed to fight back the decision to overturn California’s more than 30-year-old ban on assault weapons by a federal judge in San Diego has electrified debate across the state.
Judge Roger Benitez of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California argued that the state’s current restriction on assault weapons — based on a law passed in 1989 — unfairly limited state residents to exercise their Second Amendment rights.
Benitez likened the semiautomatic AR-15 rifle to a Swiss Army knife, calling it “good for both home and battle.”
“The firearms deemed ‘assault weapons’ are fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles,” Benitez wrote in his 96-page decision, handed down at the end of what was National Gun Violence Awareness Day. Arguing semiautomatic rifles and other high-powered firearms aren’t “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns,” Benitez said of his ruling: “This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes.”
Gun advocates hailed the decision as a long-awaited victory in the fight against California’s strict gun control laws. The case was brought to court on behalf of James Miller, a board member of San Diego County Gun Owners, as well as the group’s political action committee.
Miller was represented by lawyers for the Firearms Policy Coalition, a gun rights advocacy nonprofit. The FPC’s president, Brandon Combs, welcomed the decision but noted that it was only the beginning of the battle.
“In his order today, Judge Benitez held what millions of Americans already know to be true: Bans on so-called assault weapons are unconstitutional and cannot stand,” Combs said in a statement. “This historic victory for individual liberty is just the beginning, and FPC will continue to aggressively challenge these laws throughout the United States. We look forward to continuing this challenge at the Ninth Circuit and, should it be necessary, the Supreme Court.”
Combs added that the law in question was “broad and oppressive” and that the state’s definition of an assault weapon “has always been an arbitrary label.”
Benitez in his ruling said the state’s law was unconstitutional and that prohibiting such firearms for decades was “a failed experiment.”
“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 … Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle,” the decision reads.
Newsom, Bonta vow to fight ruling
California Gov. Gavin Newsom seized on this comparison, criticizing the decision as a dangerous setback to years of state policy in a statement released shortly after Benitez’s ruling.
“Today’s decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period,” Newsom said. “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 AR-15 is a lightweight, customizable version of the military M-16, and soared in popularity after a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004.
Newsom’s strong pushback against the ruling, saying that he won’t be “backing down from this fight,” was echoed by recently-appointed Attorney General Rob Bonta.
Bonta noted that the ruling came in the wake of “recent shootings in our own California communities.”
Most recently, a gunman in San Jose shot nine people to death at a light rail yard — although three semiautomatic pistols used weren’t banned.
The assault rifles barred under three-decade-old law have been used in other high-profile mass shootings, including school shootings in Parkland, Florida, in 2018 and at Sandy Hook elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
The California ban, first introduced following a shooting at a Stockton elementary school that left five children dead, has been revised multiple times over the past three decades since being signed into law by Republican Gov. George Deukmejian. The state has argued that assault weapons restrictions have also previously been upheld by several federal district and appeals courts.
The state previously argued in a court filing that a spike in sales in the past year of more than 1.16 million other types of pistols, rifles and shotguns “has not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense.”
Still, Benitez noted, that FBI statistics show more than seven times more people were killed by knives than rifles of any kind in California in 2019. He also wrote that, despite the ban, there are an estimated 185,569 assault weapons registered with the state.
Sam Paredes, the executive director of Gun Owners of California, said that Newsom and Bonta’s statement’s were reflective of “knee-jerk reactions” that failed to address Benitez’s essential premise.
“We were euphoric in the way that Judge Benitez literally took apart the state of California’s argument for the (Roberti-Roos) Assault Weapons Control Act,” Paredes told The Sacramento Bee on Saturday. “It seems that the government is arguing that something that is easier to use and more accurate is something the public should not have.”
Paredes resonated with Benitez’s opening comparison — that assault rifles are defensive tools, just like Swiss Army knives — and felt that any restrictions on assault rifles only hurt law-abiding citizens.
“These do not apply to criminals,” he said.
Bonta, however, promised to appeal the decision.
“Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed, and we will be appealing it. There is no sound basis in law, fact, or common sense for equating assault rifles with Swiss Army knives,” Bonta said in a statement. “We need to take action to end gun violence now. We will fight this ruling and continue to advocate for and defend common sense gun laws that will save lives.”
Benitez has overturned other gun laws
Ari Freilich, a state policy director at the Giffords Law Center — an advocacy organization that supports gun control — said that the decision is not necessarily a surprise coming from Benitez. The judge, who was appointed by President George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2004, has a track record of turning over gun control laws.
Benitez in 2019 overturned California’s large-capacity magazine ban, and in 2020, blocked the state’s ammunition background check program, which had been denying legal gun owners from buying bullets. The state is appealing both of those decisions.
Freilich said that although the decision was not unexpected, the results were still unnerving.
“It was alarming and wrong, and I also think it was insulting to release that opinion on National Gun Violence Awareness Day,” Freilich said.
In his 2019 decision overturning California’s high-capacity magazine ban, Benitez said that “the problem of mass shootings is very small,” a point which Freilich pointed out as an indication of Benitez’s dismissive attitude toward mass shooting events.
“The weapons he’s describing as similar to Swiss Army knives are the weapons of choice for mass murderers because they are designed to kill as many human beings as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Freilich said. “They are disproportionately used to perpetrate mass murder, and I would have hoped that a federal judge would at least treat the issue with gravity and respect to the families across the country who know very painfully well what they can do.”
Benitez’s decision, to Freilich, reads more like “partisan talking points” and represents a “radical outlier opinion” among California judges. He is cautiously optimistic that the decision will be overturned upon appeal, as courts across the nation have upheld gun the vast majority of gun control laws over the past ten years.
Paredes suspects that the outcome of the appeal may depend upon the U.S. Supreme Court’s response to a New York state gun control law.
John J. Donohue III, an expert on gun violence and regulation at Stanford Law School, said much of the litigation to overturn gun control measures in the United States focuses on California, given the state’s strict policies. The goal for the gun lobby, Donohue said, is to “get these cases up to the Supreme Court where they think they can win.”
Benitez issued a temporary stay on his ruling for 30 days in order to allow the state Department of Justice to file for appeal in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, so existing California law remains in place for now. The 9th Circuit was once famously liberal, but in recent years has moved right due to appointments during President Donald Trump’s administration.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.
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