Legal /

Federal Judge Strikes Down, Gives Scathing Rebuke of California Assault Weapons Ban

Democratic state attorney general calls the decision 'dangerous and misguided'

A federal judge has smacked down California’s latest assault weapons ban, declaring it unconstitutional.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez said in his 79-page ruling that, “It’s our duty as judges to interpret the Constitution based on the text and original understanding of the relevant provision — not on public policy considerations, or worse, fear of public opprobrium or criticism from the political branches.”

He wrote that California’s gun control laws run contrary to those constitutional principles by attempting to make it a crime to acquire and possess many common modern semiautomatic firearms.

Benitez described the illogic of banning assault weapons while other semiautomatic rifles remain legal on the basis that other than cosmetics, the firearms have the same functionality. He also criticized California lawmakers’ attempts to sidestep the U.S. Supreme Court’s barring of “interest-balancing” — where the government officials say their interest in public safety trumps individual rights — as a justification for gun control laws.

Benitez wrote:

Modern semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 platform rifle are widely owned by law-abiding citizens across the nation. Other than their looks (the State calls them “features” or “accessories”) these prohibited rifles are virtually the same as other lawfully possessed rifles. They have the same minimum overall length, they use the same triggers, they have the same barrels, and they can fire the same ammunition, from the same magazines, at the same rate of fire, and at the same velocities, as other rifles. What is it, then, that animates the State’s criminalization of possessing certain rifles as “assault weapons”? It is that similar rifles have been used in some mass shootings and that by virtue of this law, the legislature hoped to keep these modern weapons out of the hands of mass shooters. The California legislature, at a time in the past when the lower courts did not recognize an individual’s right to keep firearms and in a state that has no constitutional analogue to the Second Amendment, balanced that interest above and against its law-abiding citizens who wanted these firearms for self-defense.

That was then. Today, the Supreme Court has very clearly ended modern interest balancing when it comes to the Second Amendment. The Second Amendment, the Court said, “is the very product of an interest balancing by the people and it surely elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms for self-defense.” It is “this balance—struck by the traditions of the American people—that demands our unqualified deference.”

The American tradition is rich and deep in protecting a citizen’s enduring right to keep and bear common arms like rifles, shotguns, and pistols. However, among the American tradition of firearm ownership, there is nothing like California’s prohibition on rifles, shotguns, and handguns based on their looks or attributes. Here, the “assault weapon” prohibition has no historical pedigree and it is extreme. Even today, neither Congress nor most states impose such prohibitions on modern semiautomatic arms. In contrast, laws that punish criminal acts committed with any gun, like the crime of assault with a deadly weapon, remain perfectly constitutional. Those criminal laws are not at issue here.

Benitez issued an injunction blocking the law but put it on hold for 10 days to give the state time to appeal.

California Attorney Rob Bonta called the judge’s decision “dangerous and misguided,” adding that “weapons of war have no place on California’s streets.”

Bonta said, “This has been state law in California for decades, and we will continue to fight for our authority to keep our citizens safe from firearms that cause mass casualties. In the meantime, assault weapons remain unlawful for purchase, transfer, or possession in California.”

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