Federal Judge Overturns California Ban on Assault Rifles Comparing the AR-15 to a Swiss Army Knife

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

A U.S. federal judge overturned California's 32-year-old ban on assault weapons yesterday, saying it was a "failed experiment" and prompting scathing criticism from the state's governor and attorney general.

California assault rifle ban has been overturnedbrian.ch/flickr

A federal judge has overturned California's 32-year-old ban on assault rifles, ruling that it violates the constitutional right to bear arms and likening it to a Swiss army knife.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego ruled Friday that the state's definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons that are commonly allowed in most other states and by the U.S. Supreme Court.

He claimed that "under no level of heightened scrutiny” can such a law be deemed constitutional. While he issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law, he provided a 30 day stay in order to give the state Attorney General Rob Bonta time to appeal the ruling.

California first restricted assault weapons in 1989, with multiple updates to the law since then. The law was challenged in a lawsuit which was filed in 2019 against the state’s attorney general by plaintiffs that included James Miller, a California resident, and the San Diego County Gun Owners, a political action committee. The San Diego County Gun Owners bill itself as “a political organization that focuses on expanding and restoring Second Amendment rights within San Diego County.”

California's attorney general argued that assault weapons as defined by California state law are far more dangerous than other types of firearms and that they are disproportionately used in violent crimes and mass shootings. But Benitez replied that the guns are overwhelmingly purchased for legal purposes.

Judge Benitez stated that the case was about “what should be a muscular constitutional right and whether a state can force a gun policy choice that impinges on that right with a 30-year-old failed experiment.”

“It should be an easy question and answer,” Judge Benitez added. “Government is not free to impose its own new policy choices on American citizens where constitutional rights are concerned.”

The judge said that the firearms in question that had been banned under state law were not “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns, but rather fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.”

In his ruling, Judge Benitez also criticized the media for publicizing nonfactual information about assault weapons, stating "One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles. The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter."

This is not the first pro gun ruling Judge Benitez has issued. In 2017, he blocked a new California law that would have banned magazines of more than 10 rounds. While a 3 judge panel from the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld his ruling last year in a split decision, the appeals court said that an 11-judge panel would rehear the case. In 2019 he ruled that high-capacity gun magazines would remain legal in California, citing a home invasion where a woman used the extra bullets in her weapon to kill an attacker and two other home invasion cases that involved women without additional ammunition running out of bullets. In this ruling he again claimed that such an action would infringe on the people’s Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Gun rights advocates celebrated the decision. The pro-gun Firearms Policy Coalition said the ruling was a first step in "restoring" gun rights across the country, adding that the existing state gun laws were "tyrannical."

In a statement following the decision, California Governor Gavin Newsom criticized the ruling and pledged not to back down from the fight to pass gun laws to protect the people, as follows:

“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. We’re not backing down from this fight, and we’ll continue pushing for common sense gun laws that will save lives.”

California Attorney General Rob Bonta stated in a press release that he would appeal the ruling as it has no basis in facts, laws or common sense:

“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 — especially on Gun Violence Awareness Day and after the recent shootings in our own California communities. 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.”

There has been a lot of discussion about banning assault weapons in recent months with several mass shootings and large cities with high homicide rates involving assault weapons. In response to this a study was conducted at Northwestern University which showed that the federal assault weapon ban from 1994-2004 was effective at preventing mass shootings.

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