SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge ruled Friday that California
's three-decade-old assault-weapons ban violates the constitutional right to keep and bear
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego
ruled that the state's definition of illegal military-style rifles deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly permitted in most other states
and by the U.S. Supreme Court
“Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive,” Benitez said, issuing a permanent injunction against the law’s enforcement but staying it for 30 days to give state Attorney General Rob Bonta
time to appeal.
Gov. Gavin Newsom
called the decision "a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period."
The judge praised modern weapons in his 94-page ruling, saying they were overwhelmingly used for legal reasons. “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 said in the introduction to his ruling.
This comparison “completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who have lost loved ones to this weapon,” Newsom said in a statement. “We are not backing down from this fight, and we will continue pushing for commonsense gun
laws that will save lives.”
Bonta criticized the decision and stated that it would be appealed.
California banned assault weapons for the first time in 1989, and the law has been updated numerous times since then.
The state attorney general's office argued that assault weapons are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes, mass shootings
, and against law enforcement, resulting in more casualties, and that prohibiting them "furthers the state's important public safety interests."
Furthermore, a surge in sales of more than 1.16 million other types of pistols, rifles, and shotguns in the last year, with more than a third going to likely first-time buyers, shows that the assault weapons ban “has not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense,” the state argued in a court filing in March.
The state argued that similar assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts, and that overturning the ban would allow not only assault rifles, but also assault shotguns and assault pistols.
Benitez, on the other hand, was of the opinion that it was not.
“This case is not about extraordinary weapons that push the boundaries of Second Amendment protection; the prohibited ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns; those arms are dangerous and only useful for military purposes,” he wrote in his ruling.
Despite California's ban, the judge estimated that there are currently 185,569 assault weapons registered with the state.
“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” the ruling stated, adding, “one is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media
and others that the country is awash in murderous AR-15 assault rifles, but the facts, and facts matter,”
“Murder by knife is seven times more common in California than murder by rifle,” he adds.
In a preliminary ruling issued in September, Benitez stated that California's complicated legal definition of assault weapons can trap otherwise law-abiding gun owners in criminal penalties, including the loss of their Second Amendment right to own firearms.
“The burden on the core Second Amendment right, if any, is minimal,” the state argued, because the weapons can still be used — just not with the modifications that turn them into assault weapons. State officials claimed that modifications like a shorter barrel or collapsible stock make them more concealable, while things like a pistol grip or thumbhole grip make them more lethal by improving their accuracies.
, filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, the California Gun Rights Foundation, the Second Amendment Foundation, and the Firearms Policy Coalition, is one of several by gun advocacy groups challenging California's strict firearms laws, which are among the strictest in the country.
The lawsuit, which was filed in August 2019, came after a string of deadly mass shootings across the country involving military-style rifles.
It was filed on behalf of gun owners who want to use high-capacity magazines in their legal rifles or pistols but can't because doing so would turn them into illegal assault weapons under California law. Unlike military weapons, semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet every time the trigger is pulled, and the plaintiffs claim they are legal in 41 states.
According to the lawsuit, California is “one of only a small handful of states to ban many of the most popular semiautomatic firearms in the country because they possess one or more common characteristics, such as pistol grips and threaded barrels,” frequently but not always in conjunction with detachable ammunition magazines.
The state is appealing Benitez's 2017 ruling overturning the state's nearly two-decade-old ban on the sale and purchase of magazines holding more than ten bullets, which triggered a weeklong buying spree before the judge halted sales during the appeal. It was upheld in August by a three-judge appellate panel, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in March that an 11-member panel will hear the case.
The state is also appealing Benitez's decision to block a 2019 California law requiring background checks for anyone purchasing ammunition in April
Both of these initiatives were championed by Newsom as lieutenant governor
, and they were approved by voters
in a 2016 ballot measure.