California Judge Strikes Down State's 'Assault Weapons' Ban

California Judge Strikes Down State's 'Assault Weapons' Ban

A federal judge in California struck down the state’s “assault weapons” ban earlier this month, handing Second Amendment advocates a big win in one of the most restrictive states in the nation.

U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez ruled that California’s longstanding ban on certain types of semi-automatic firearms violates both the Second Amendment and the 2008 Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller.

“In the end, the Bill of Rights is not a list of suggestions or guidelines for social balancing,” Benitez writes in his 94-page decision. “The Bill of Rights prevents the tyranny of the majority from taking away the rights of a minority. When a state nibbles on Constitutional rights, who protects the minorities? The federal courts. The Second Amendment protects any law-abiding citizen’s right to choose to be armed to defend himself, his family, and his home.”

Furthermore, because Heller protects firearms commonly owned for lawful purposes, California is not permitted to ban ownership of ultra-popular firearms like the AR-15, according to Benitez.

“As applied to [California’s ‘assault weapons’ ban], the Heller test asks: is a modern rifle commonly owned by law-abiding citizens for a lawful purpose? For the AR-15 type rifle the answer is ‘yes,’” Benitez writes. “The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and keep the popular AR-15 rifle and its many variants do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense at home. Under Heller, that is all that is needed.”

Second Amendment advocacy organizations were quick to praise Benitez’s ruling as a strong defense of gun rights.

“Judge Benitez has shredded California gun control laws regarding modern semi-automatic rifles,” said Second Amendment Foundation founder and Executive Vice President Alan M. Gottlieb. “It is clear the judge did his homework on this ruling, and we are delighted with the outcome. There is not much wiggle room in the judge’s decision.”

Gun control groups and California officials condemned the decision as “dangerous” and “alarming.”

“Today’s decision is alarming and wrongly decided. A judge with extremist views prioritized weapons of war over the lives of Californians,” said Robyn Thomas, the executive director of the gun control group Giffords. “Too many families across the nation have lost loved ones in shootings carried out with assault weapons.”

California Governor Gavin Newsom alluded to Benitez’s previous pro-gun decisions to argue that the judge is a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the gun lobby.”

Benitez, who resides in San Diego, has issued several previous decisions that nullified other California gun laws. In 2019, Benitez struck down California’s ban on ammunition magazines that hold over 10 rounds, and in 2020, he declared unconstitutional the state’s background check requirement for ammunition purchases.

Like those previous rulings, however, Benitez’s latest decision doesn’t change anything for California gun owners right now. Benitez put a 30-day stay on his order to allow the state to appeal, which State Attorney General Rob Bonta did on June 11. Now, the case will work its way through the court system until one side opts not to appeal a ruling or the U.S. Supreme Court decides the case.

Why Hunters Should Care Hunters have become a kind of political football in the arguments surrounding the sale and ownership of semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 and AK-47. Gun control proponents, some of whom are hunters themselves, argue that modern rifles are not necessary for hunting.

NASA astronaut and former Florida senator Bill Nelson, for example, said during a CNN town hall in 2018 that, as a hunter, he supporters an assault weapons ban.

“I grew up on a ranch. I’ve always had guns. I’ve hunted all my life. I still hunt with my son,” he said. “But an AK-47 and an AR-15 is not for hunting. It’s for killing.”

That same year, a group of outdoor writers penned a letter in The Huffington Post calling for greater gun control and arguing that AR-15s are not “preferable for legitimate, fair-chase hunting.”

Gun rights advocates argue that the framers of the Constitution did not write the Second Amendment with hunting in mind. As Benitez points out, the constitutional right to “keep and bear arms” protects gun ownership so that Americans have a means to defend themselves, both individually against criminals and collectively against government tyranny.

Nephi Cole of the National Shooting Sports Foundation made the same argument in an interview with MeatEater.

“The right [to own a firearm] is not predicated on a specific use. You do not have to be a hunter to own a gun. You also have no obligation to own guns for self-defense. In the United States, you get to make that choice,” he said.

Others point out that modern sporting rifles like the AR-15 are being used for hunting, and that hunters have always used the latest military technology to pursue game.

According to a 2014 survey of hunters by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, 27% reported having used an AR-15 to hunt, and 58% of those used one in the last year. Given the continuing rise in sales of AR-type rifles, the percentage today is certainly much higher, Cole told us.

As AR-15s and similar firearms have become more popular, hunters have adopted them to pursue a wide variety of game. The platform can be built around various cartridges to target specific species, most rifles are lightweight and easy to pack, and interchangeable parts allow hobbyists to repair or upgrade their rifles at home.

It’s also true that the bolt-action firearms considered traditional deer rifles today were once the cutting edge of military technology. Historically speaking, calling the AR-15 a “weapon of war,” as many gun control advocates do, does not preclude it from the deer blind.

“It’s just another gun,” Cole argued. “Modern rifles are owned by somewhere north of 15 million people. In fact, they are now the most prevalent rifle in the United States. To paraphrase Judge Benitez, ‘the F-150 is the most common truck in America. There are more modern rifles than F-150s.’”

Ultimately, Cole believes the assault weapon debate isn’t really about the gun itself—it’s about how both sides have used modern rifles as symbols of something larger.

“Most people can’t define what a modern rifle is or is not. Fact is, that doesn’t matter. The specific gun itself was never the real issue—the issue was pure politics. It was symbolism,” he said. “One extreme wanted you afraid of a gun, the other afraid they’d all be taken.”

Cole sees Benitez’s decision as a way for some hunters and gun rights advocates to get past their disagreements about modern semi-automatic rifles.

“Judge Benitez did us a huge favor. We have a legal right, if we want to exercise it, to own common firearms and use them for whatever legal purpose we choose. The fake argument is unhelpful. It doesn’t make anyone better,” he said. “The opportunity is here. It is time to move on, past the gun fight. I might hunt with a different gun than you, but maybe I don’t. It doesn’t matter. I support your right to own and hunt with what you want.”

Right now, seven states and the District of Columbia have passed bans on so-called assault weapons, according to Giffords: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York. The federal government banned some types of semi-automatic rifles in 1994, but that ban expired in 2004 and has not been reinstated by the U.S. Congress.

Feature image via Justin Holt.

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