Judge rules CA’s assault weapons ban is unconstitutional
A San Diego judge cited the self-defense potential and landmark gun rights decisions by the Supreme Court in his ruling against the prohibition of assault weapons in California.
by Sam Ribakoff, Court House News, October 19, 2023
SAN DIEGO (CN) — A federal judge in San Diego ruled again on Thursday that California’s decades-old ban on semi-automatic weapons violates residents' Second Amendment rights, and their ability to defend themselves from armed would-be criminal assailants.
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ruled in a particularly astringent 79 page opinion in the long running case that, under a pair of landmark U.S. Supreme Court rulings expanding gun rights, the prohibition on semi-automatic rifles ownership is unconstitutional. The ruling orders an injunction on state statutes governing the weapons, though the judge granted a 10-day stay requested by the state to allow it to appeal the decision with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
In his ruling, Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee, referenced 2008's Supreme Court case, District of Columbia v. Heller, which ruled that the people have the right to have guns, unconnected to service with a militia, for lawful purposes.
“Heller said quite clearly that it is no constitutional answer for government to say that it is permissible to ban some guns so long as other guns are allowed. This is not the way American Constitutional rights work,” Benitez wrote.
The lawsuit took aim at bringing down California’s Roberti–Roos Assault Weapons Control Act of 1989, which banned Californians from owning a number of assault weapons. The law was passed by Republican Governor George Deukmejian after a gunman killed five children at the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California with an AK-47 in 1989. It was the largest non-college school shooting until the Columbine High School school shooting ten years later.
The original suit, brought by San Diego County gun owner James Miller along with a number of gun activist groups, had received a similar ruling in 2021 by Benitez, after which the state appealed. The case was sent back down to Benitez in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen that gun regulations must be justified by evidence of consistency with gun regulations from the 18th and 19th century when the Second Amendment was first enacted.
The plaintiffs argument hinged on the fact that semi-automatic and other types of assault rifles banned by state law are commonly found throughout the country in other states, and not allowing law abiding Californians from having those same guns deprives them of their Second Amendment rights — an argument that Benitez agreed with, writing several paragraphs about individuals who have used semi-automatic weapons in self defense.
“People have heard about the Robb Elementary School shooting in Uvalde, Texas. They have heard about Sandy Hook, Parkland, the Pulse nightclub, and other tragic mass shootings," Benitez wrote. "But they do not hear of the AR-15 used in Florida by a pregnant wife and mother to defend her family from two armed, hooded, and masked home intruders."
In the characteristic lurid style he used in similar big gun regulation case rulings, like a September decision in Duncan v Bonta, Benitez continued, "As soon as the armed intruders entered the back door of her home they pistol-whipped her husband — fracturing his eye socket and sinus cavity. Then they grabbed the 11-year old daughter. The pregnant wife and mother was able to retrieve the family AR-15 from a bedroom and fire, killing one of the attackers while the other fled. It does not require much imagination to think what would have happened next if the woman had lived in California and could not possess such a firearm."
Benitez goes on to write that California’s argument that they can ban semi-automatic weapons because they’re used in military service doesn’t fly with the Heller ruling, and the guns the state bans are no more dangerous than other guns that are not banned. Assault weapons, he says, are just modern version of older weapons, like rifles, shotguns, and pistols, in reference to the Bruen ruling.
"There are no founding era dead ringers or historical twins. A historical twin is not unimaginable. It could have been the case that the early states prohibited ownership of rifles and muskets with bayonet attachments or firearms capable of multiple shots without reloading. One could imagine the states prohibiting private possession of canons or Gatling guns. There were no such restrictions," he wrote.
The Second Amendment, Benitez said, “is fully binding on the states and limits their ability to devise solutions to social problems.”
“I think we’re quite pleased with the thorough and scholarly opinion by the judge,” said Erik Scott Jaffe, the plaintiffs’ attorney.
Jaffe added that he thinks Benitez’s decision will eventually pull through the Ninth Circuit, but, “if that has to be through the Supreme Court, so be it,” he added.
“Weapons of war have no place on California’s streets,” wrote California Attorney General Rob Bonta in a press release in response to Benitez’s ruling. “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. The Supreme Court was clear that Bruen did not create a regulatory straitjacket for states. Once again, this district court issued a dangerous and misguided decision and I will work vigorously to reverse it on appeal. We will not stop in our efforts to protect the safety of communities to live without fear of becoming victims of gun violence, while at the same time respecting the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding gun owners.”
HiFiCO: California's Assault weapon ban found unconstitutional