The Golden State’s ban on magazines that hold more than ten rounds of ammunition violates the Second Amendment.
That’s the ruling United States District Court Judge Robert Benitez handed down on Friday. He found the restriction on so-called high-capacity magazines failed the test for determining the constitutionality created by the Supreme Court last year.
“This case is about a California state law that makes it a crime to keep and bear common firearm magazines typically possessed for lawful purposes,” Judge Benitez wrote in Duncan v. Bonta. “Based on the text, history, and tradition of the Second Amendment, this law is clearly unconstitutional.”
The ruling pushed the fight over ammo magazines back up the federal courts on a path that likely ends at the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). It is the first of the four cases the High Court granted, vacated, and remanded in the wake of its New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen decision to reach a verdict on reconsideration. That means SCOTUS is watching the case closely and is now one step closer to garnering the High Court’s final decision.
The next stop for the case will be the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. This will be the second time the appeals court hears an appeal of a decision from Judge Benitez striking down the magazine limit. In 2021, an en banc panel reversed his decision and upheld the restriction as constitutional.
“Nothing in the record suggests that the restriction imposes any more than a minimal burden on the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms,” Judge Susan P. Graber wrote for a 7-4 majority of the Ninth Circuit. “Similarly, the record suggests at most a minimal burden, if any burden at all, on the right of self-defense in the home.”
That decision relied on the previous two-step test lower courts used to balance the state’s interest against infringing citizens’ Second Amendment rights. SCOTUS decried the old test and instituted a new one in 2022’s Bruen decision. Instead, it relied on determining whether any modern regulation is a close fit with those that existed when the Second Amendment was written.
Judge Benitez, who put a 10-day stay on his order in anticipation of an appeal, found the government’s proposed analogues for their magazine ban didn’t pass muster.
“Government remains fixed on the notion that it alone can decide that anything larger than a 10-round magazine is not ‘suitable’ for a citizen to have. But, there are no analogous cases in our history,” he wrote. “There are no cases where American government dictated that lever-action rifles were unsuitable because single shot rifles were good enough, or revolvers were unsuitable because derringers were good enough. These choices have always belonged to the People to decide for themselves how much firepower they need.”
In fact, he said the laws that did regulate ammunition during the Founding Era operated in precisely the opposite way the modern limit does.
“The right to have firearms for social security was important at the time the Constitution was adopted,” Benitez wrote. “There were many enemies of the young nation. An armed citizenry provided a much-needed deterrent effect. Early citizens remembered how the Minutemen of Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, by assembling as a militia, fought back against the hostile British march to take away guns and gunpowder in April 1776.”
“These and other citizen militia laws demonstrate that, contrary to the idea of a firing-capacity upper limit on the number of rounds permitted, there was a legal obligation for the average citizen to have at least 20 rounds available for immediate use,” he continued. “There were no upper limits like § 32310; there were floors and the floors were well above 10 rounds. California’s large capacity magazine ban is a diametrically opposed analogue.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom (D.), who is attempting to organize a constitutional convention to partially repeal the Second Amendment, decried the decision. He lobbed personal attacks at Judge Benitez, labeling him “an extremist, right-wing zealot with no regard to human life.”
“Wake up, America,” he tweeted. “Our gun safety laws will continue to be thrown out by NRA-owned federal judges until we pass a Constitutional Amendment to protect our kids and end the gun violence epidemic in America.”
The NRA responded by saying the ruling should be a “wake-up call” for the governor.
“You took an oath of office to defend the entire Constitution of the United States — Second Amendment included,” the group tweeted. “Ambition can be blinding…”
Other advocates celebrated the ruling as a win for gun rights that could create a domino effect that sees similar bans in other states fall.
“We are delighted with this ruling,” Alan M. Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, said in a statement. “The decision affects Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson’s defense against a lawsuit challenging a similar ban in his state, which is also in the Ninth Circuit, as well as bans in other states. Ultimately, we expect this issue will have to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Judge Benitez concluded his opinion by arguing the Second Amendment was “a freedom calculus decided long ago by our first citizens” that valued individual rights over the “subservient security” of the British monarchy or “smothering safety of domestic lawmakers.” He said that freedom was worth fighting for during the revolution and preserving today.
“One government solution to a few mad men with guns is a law that makes into criminals responsible, law-abiding people wanting larger magazines simply to protect themselves,” he wrote. “The history and tradition of the Second Amendment clearly supports state laws against the use or misuse of firearms with unlawful intent, but not the disarmament of the law-abiding citizen. That kind of a solution is an infringement on the Constitutional right of citizens to keep and bear arms.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) has already filed a notice of appeal. A Ninth Circuit panel will soon decide whether to grant an extended stay on the ruling pending that case.