US federal judge overturns California’s ban on assault weapons

Judge likens AR15s to Swiss Army knives and says ban contravenes constitutional rights

Similar assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts. Photograph: iStock

Similar assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts. Photograph: iStock

 

A federal judge has overturned California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, ruling that it violates the constitutional right to bear arms.

US district judge Roger Benitez of San Diego ruled on Friday that the state’s definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly allowed in most other states and by the US Supreme Court

California first restricted assault weapons in 1989, with multiple updates to the law since then.

California’s attorney general argued that assault weapons as defined by the law are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes and mass shootings.

But Mr Benitez said the guns are overwhelmingly owned for legal purposes.

He said: “Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive.”

He issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law but stayed it for 30 days to give state attorney general Rob Bonta time to appeal.

Governor Gavin Newsom condemned the decision, calling it “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period”.

In his 94-page ruling, the judge spoke favourably of modern weapons.

He wrote: “Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defence weapon and homeland defence equipment. Good for both home and battle.”

That comparison “completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon,” Mr Newsom said in a statement.

“We’re not backing down from this fight, and we’ll continue pushing for common sense gun laws that will save lives.”

Mr Bonta called the ruling flawed and said it will be appealed.

Assault weapons as defined by the law are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes, mass shootings and against law enforcement, with more resulting casualties, the state attorney general’s office argued, and barring them “furthers the state’s important public safety interests”.

Further, a surge in sales of more than 1.16 million other types of pistols, rifles and shotguns in the last year show that the assault weapons ban “has not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defence,” the state contended in a court filing in March.

Similar assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts, the state argued.

Overturning the ban would allow not only assault rifles, but things like assault shotguns and assault pistols, state officials said.

But Mr Benitez disagreed.

He said: “This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection. The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns. Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes.”

Despite California’s ban, there currently are an estimated 185,569 assault weapons registered with the state, the judge said.

“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” the ruling said.

“One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles. The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter.”

Mr Benitez added: “In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle.” – PA