A federal judge in October issued a thoroughgoing rebuke of California lawmakers’ attempt to limit so-called “assault weapons” in the Golden State. The lively and definitive ruling came after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 6-3 landmark New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen last year, in which the Court struck down limits on concealed-carry handguns and also declared that all restrictions on firearms must be “consistent with this nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation” to stand legally.
“The State’s attempt to ban these popular firearms creates the extreme policy that a handful of criminals can dictate the conduct and infringe on the freedom of law-abiding citizens.”
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez’s ruling dived deep into American history — from the Founding Era through the Civil War and beyond — to demonstrate that laws limiting the use of guns have been scarce and light-handed. At one point, he wrote that the State of California was “grasping at straws” to give its ban on so-called “assault weapons” a legal basis. Elsewhere, he scolded the State by saying it “offers a word game for another” failed argument.
“Like Baghdad Bob during the first Gulf War in 1991, the State clings to a wish,” Benitez wrote. “The State wants to believe that the firearms prohibited by the ‘assault weapon’ ban are not commonly owned or are not commonly owned for self-defense. The argument remains unconvincing. Normal AR-15s are still massively popular. See, e.g., The Gun That Divides A Nation, Washington Post (Mar. 27, 2023) ‘Today, the AR-15 is the best-selling rifle in the United States, industry figures indicate. About 1 in 20 United States adults—or roughly 16 million people—own at least one AR-15, according to polling data from The Washington Post and Ipsos.’”
“… the arms the State bans as ‘assault weapons’ are no more dangerous than other arms the State does not ban.”
California Governor Gavin Newsom called it a “radical ruling” and “a direct insult to every victim of a mass shooting and their families. Californians’ elected representatives decided almost 35 years ago that weapons of war have no place in our communities. Today, Judge Benitez decided that he knows better.”
A furious Newsom went on: “Judge Benitez is hellbent on making it more dangerous for our kids to go to school, for families to go to the mall, or to attend a place of worship. We are working with Attorney General Rob Bonta to fight this extreme and logically incoherent ruling and keep California safer, but we should not have to go get Judge Benitez overturned every time he decides to write a love letter to the gun lobby. This is exactly why I’ve called for a Constitutional amendment, and this is why I’ll keep fighting to defend our right to protect ourselves from gun violence.”
Here are excerpts from the ruling, which came out of the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California:
“Guns and ammunition in the hands of criminals, tyrants and terrorists are dangerous; guns in the hands of law-abiding responsible citizens are necessary. To give full life to the core right of self-defense, every law-abiding responsible individual citizen has a constitutionally protected right to keep and bear firearms commonly owned and kept for lawful purposes. In early America and today, the Second Amendment right of self-preservation permits a citizen to ‘”repel force by force” when “the intervention of society in his behalf, may be too late to prevent that injury.”’ Unfortunately, governments tend to restrict the right of armed self-defense. Punishing every good citizen because bad ones misuse a gun offends the Constitution.”
“Americans have an individual right to keep and bear firearms. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution ‘guarantee[s] the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation.’ Whether citizens ever fire or need to fire their weapons, is not important. This guarantee is fully binding on the States and limits their ability to devise solutions to social problems.4 And the guarantee protects ‘the possession of weapons that are “in common use,”’ or arms that are ‘typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.’ These are the decisions this Court is bound to apply. ‘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.’”
“This case is about California laws that, in contrast to these constitutional principles, make it a crime to acquire and possess many common modern semiautomatic firearms. 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.’”
“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.”
“The State says criminals already have and favor using guns described as ‘assault weapons.’ Rather than being outgunned, many citizens want these same firearms as a defense against criminal attacks. Americans today own 24.4 million modern rifles (i.e., AR-15 platform and AK-47 platform rifles), according to the State’s expert. Of the AR-15 rifle owners surveyed, 61% said one reason they acquired their gun is for home defense. Consequently, while criminals already have these modern semiautomatics, the State prohibits its citizens from buying and possessing the same guns for self-defense. At the same time these firearms are commonly possessed by law-abiding gun owners elsewhere across the country. Guns for self-defense are needed a lot because crime happens a lot.”
“California laws … in contrast to these constitutional principles, make it a crime to acquire and possess many common modern semiautomatic firearms.”
“… [B]randishing an AR-15 can be a strong deterrent to criminal attackers. But when brandishing does not stop an attack, [An individual] needs an effective defense. That is where an AR-15 style semiautomatic rifle can come to the rescue. And although this Court focuses its analysis on rifles, California’s ban also includes such common weapons as semiautomatic shotguns with removable magazines and semiautomatic handguns with threaded barrels.”
“In California, while modern semiautomatics are not rare, they are rarely the problem. For example, in 2022, only three ‘assault weapons’ were used in violent California crimes, according to the Attorney General’s annual report, ‘Firearms Used in the Commission of Crimes.’ For the preceding year, the report announced that only two assault weapons were used in violent crimes, while the 2020 report identified zero ‘assault weapons’ used. Other government homicide statistics do not track ‘assault rifles,’ but they do show that killing by knife attack is far more common than homicide by any kind of rifle. In California, with a population close to 39 million people, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle.”
“… [T]he arms the State bans as ‘assault weapons’ are no more dangerous than other arms the State does not ban. The banned arms are just modern versions of rifles, shotguns, and pistols. For example, a Springfield 1911 pistol with a threaded barrel is an ‘assault weapon,’ according to California law. The same 1911 pistol (standard issue for the United States military for decades) without a threaded barrel, is fine. An AR-15 with normal parts is banned, but the same AR-15 with an awkward shark fin grip, an unmovable stock, and a barrel compensator in place of a flash hider, shooting the same ammunition, is fine.”
“Falling back on an old, recycled justification, the State says that its ban should stand because a person can have as many other rifles, shotguns, and pistols as one wants. The problem is that the alternatives-remain argument has no limiting principle and would justify incremental firearm bans until there is only a single-shot derringer remaining for lawful self-defense.”
“This Court has previously determined that the State’s ban on modern semi-automatics has no historical pedigree. Prior to the 1990’s, there was no national history of banning weapons because they were equipped with furniture like pistol grips, collapsible stocks, flash hiders, flare launchers, or threaded barrels. In fact, prior to California’s 1989 ban, so-called ‘assault weapons’ were lawfully manufactured, acquired, and possessed throughout the United States.
“The State’s attempt to ban these popular firearms creates the extreme policy that a handful of criminals can dictate the conduct and infringe on the freedom of law-abiding citizens. … [T]he Second Amendment takes certain policy choices and removes them beyond the realm of permissible state action. California’s answer to the criminal misuse of a few is to disarm its many good residents. That knee-jerk reaction is constitutionally untenable, just as it was 250 years ago. The Second Amendment stands as a shield from government imposition of that policy.”