A federal judge on Friday overturned California’s ban on assault weapons that has been in effect since 1989, and has had multiple updates since then.  The judge ruled it violated the constitutional right to bear arms.

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

Judge Benitez said, “Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive.”  He issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law but stayed it for 30 days to give State Attorney General Rob Bonta time to appeal.
In the Judge’s 94-page ruling, he spoke favorably of modern weapons and said they were overwhelming 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 his ruling’s introduction.
Attorney General Bonta called the ruling flawed and it will be appealed. 

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

The state argued that similar weapon assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts.  Overturning the ban would allow not only assault rifles, but things like assault shotguns and assault pistols, state officials said.

But Judge Benitez disagreed and said in his ruling “This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection.  The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazooka, howitzers, or machine guns.  Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes.  There are currently an estimated 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 said.  “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. In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle,” the ruling added.

In a preliminary ruling in September, Benitez said California’s complicated legal definition of assault weapons can ensnare otherwise law-abiding gun owners with criminal penalties that among other things can strip them of their Second Amendment right to own firearms.

The state argued, “The burden on the core Second Amendment right, if any, is minimal, because weapons can still be used, just not with the modifications that turn them into assault weapons.  Modifications like a shorter barrel or collapsible stock make them more concealable, according to state officials, while things like a pistol grip or thumbhole grip make them more lethal by improving their accuracy as they are fired rapidly.

The lawsuit filed in August 2019 was filed by the San Diego Conty Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition is among several by gun advocacy groups challenging California’s firearms laws, which are among the strictest in the nation.

It was filed on behalf of gun owners with legal rifles or pistols that want to use high-capacity magazines, but said they can’t legally under California law.  Semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, and according to the plaintiffs, they are not military weapons and are legal in 41 other states.  

It is a safe bet that the state will appeal, as they are appealing Judge Benitez’s 2017 ruling against the state’s ban on the sale or purchase of magazines holding more than 10 bullets.  The state is also appealing Benitez’s April 2020 decision blocking a 2019 California law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.

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