A federal judge overturned California’s 32-year-old ban on assault weapons, calling the law unconstitutional in a Friday decision that compared AR-15s to Swiss Army knives, setting the stage for an appeals court battle over one of the country’s oldest assault weapons bans.
San Diego judge Roger Benitez, an appointee of President George W. Bush, argued firearms like the AR-15 are “ordinary, popular, modern rifles” and are often useful for self defense and sport, so California’s ban runs afoul of the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court’s landmark 2008 D.C. v. Heller decision.
The assault weapons ban will not disappear immediately: Benitez issued a temporary stay for his decision, giving state Attorney General Rob Bonta 30 days to appeal the ruling at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals before it takes effect.
Bonta has already vowed to appeal Benitez’s decision, which he called “fundamentally flawed” in a Friday night statement.
Benitez has taken aim at California’s strict firearm laws in at least two other cases, and his history after the state appeals his decisions to the Ninth Circuit is mixed.
Last year, the Ninth Circuit temporarily halted Benitez’s ruling rejecting California’s background check requirement for gun magazines, but the appeals court upheld a different decision by Benitez to toss out California’s ban on gun magazines with over 10 bullets, though the Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear that case last year.
Federal district and appeals court judges have upheld similar assault weapon bans in Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Chicago and Washington, D.C., in recent years. The Supreme Court chose not to hear challenges to Connecticut and New York’s assault weapons bans in 2016, but the court has grown more conservative since then.
California first passed an assault weapons ban in 1989, barring its residents from buying certain types of semiautomatic guns. The law has outlasted a federal ban on assault weapons that was passed in 1994 and expired in 2004, and since then, guns like the AR-15 have become popular in many states even as places like California restrict them. Gun advocates argue banning rifles like AR-15s is arbitrary and unnecessary for public safety, but supporters of gun control warn these firearms are regularly used in high-profile mass shootings and are designed to be more lethal than other weapons.
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez wrote in his decision. “Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle.”
“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,” Bonta said.