A federal judge ruled Friday that California’s “assault weapons” ban is unconstitutional.
The court found the state’s ban on the sale of AR-15s and other popular rifles violated the Second Amendment. Judge Roger Benitez ruled the guns targeted by California are in common use. He said the state ran afoul of the Constitution in restricting access to them.
“This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection,” Benitez wrote. “The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machineguns. Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes. Instead, the firearms deemed ‘assault weapons’ are fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.
“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes.”
California’s ban is one of the oldest and most aggressive in the country. It was instituted in 1989 but has been expanded multiple times in the decades since. The state added more guns and features to the ban. Eventually, it banned the possession of unregistered “assault weapons” before the latest iteration of the ban was challenged by gun-rights groups in federal court.
Benitez said the AR-15’s versatility made it widely popular in the United States, and that popularity is part of what gives it protection under the Second Amendment. He compared the modular firearm to a “Swiss Army Knife” and noted its use for home defense and civil defense.
“Good for both home and battle, the AR-15 is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under District of Columbia v. Heller and United States v. Miller,” he said. “Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle. Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional.”
Alan Gottlieb, whose group the Second Amendment Foundation filed the suit alongside other gun-rights advocates, said he was “thrilled” by the ruling. He said it demonstrates that the Second Amendment protects the AR-15 under Supreme Court precedent.
“The so-called assault weapon is the most popular rifle sold in the United States,” Gottlieb told The Reload. “It’s commonly owned and definitely protected by the Second Amendment and two previous Supreme Court rulings in Heller and McDonald.”
Brandon Combs, president of the Firearms Policy Coalition that was also one of the plaintiffs, said the ruling bodes well for the group’s efforts to fight “assault weapons” bans across the country.
“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,” he 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.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom (D.) slammed the ruling as dangerous.
“Today’s decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period,” he said in a statement. “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.”
Benitez said striking down the law was necessary to protect the rights of California gun owners even if a majority of Californians support the gun ban.
“While the Court is mindful that government has a legitimate interest in protecting the public from gun violence, it is equally mindful that the Constitution remains a shield from the tyranny of the majority,” he wrote. “As Senator Edward Kennedy said, ‘[t]he judiciary is – and is often the only – protector of individual rights that are at the heart of our democracy.’ Law-abiding citizens are imbued with the unalienable right to keep and bear modern firearms.”
Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee to the United States District Court for the Southern District of California, has issued several rulings striking down California’s restrictive gun laws. The state has often appealed his decisions and found a friendlier reception in front of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Gottlieb said the plaintiffs expect California will appeal this ruling as well.
The ruling will not go into effect immediately. Benitez issued a temporary stay requested by California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D.) to allow 30 days for him to file an appeal.
“Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed, and we will be appealing it,” he said in a statement. “We will fight this ruling and continue to advocate for and defend common sense gun laws that will save lives.”
The plaintiffs said they would continue to fight the state if it filed an appeal of the ruling.
“We look forward to continuing this challenge at the Ninth Circuit and, should it be necessary, the Supreme Court,” Combs said.
Update 12:32 am 6/5/2021: This piece has been updated to include comment from California Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta.