A U.S. District Court decision on Thursday, Oct. 19, overturning California’s assault weapons ban is igniting outrage among top state and local officials.
Senior Judge Roger Benitez of the Southern District of California ruled Oct. 19 that the state's Assault Weapons Control Act, which first passed in 1989, is unconstitutional. His words sparked incredulity from local and state officials.
"Like the bowie knife which was commonly carried by citizens and soldiers in the 1800s, 'assault weapons' are dangerous, but useful. But unlike the bowie knife, the United States Supreme Court has said, '(t)here is a long tradition of widespread lawful gun ownership by private individuals in this country,'" Benitez wrote in a 79-page decision.
The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees the individual right to possess and carry weapons in case of confrontation, he said.
"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. 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,'" he said, quoting various courts' prior rulings.
Steve Wagstaffe, San Mateo County district attorney, deeply opposed the ruling.
"I have spent decades watching carnage by criminals using assault weapons on the streets of our state inflicting incredible pain to the victims and families of victims. It is so disappointing that California’s effort to reduce this violence is crushed by one judge’s decision," Steve Wagstaffe said. "Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who championed assault rifle bans, must be looking down from heaven in disgust at this decision."
Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian said he read the entire 79-page decision.
"I think it's bad law and it's bad policy," he said.
Jeff Rosen, Santa Clara County district attorney, was unavailable for comment, according to staff.
California's Assault Weapons Control Act defines assault weapons as guns with magazines holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition and other specified special features. Benitez said the assault rifles aren't different from other types of rifles, despite their features or accessories. The reason California bans them is because they have been used in mass shootings, he said.
But assault weapons are rarely used in crimes, Benitez said. 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, he noted. Other government statistics on homicides showed that more people are killed by knives than by any kind of rifle, he said.
Benitez's ruling is based on the same reasoning he made in 2021 regarding a 2019 case, Miller vs. Bonta, in which he declared California's assault-weapon laws are unconstitutional.
The state attorney general appealed Benitez's decision then, but the federal 9th Circuit Court of Appeal didn't get to rule on the appeal. A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a New York gun case created a new standard for analyzing firearms restrictions, forcing the appeal to be vacated and returned back to the lower court for consideration under the new standard.
Benitez has again determined that the state’s ban on modern semi-automatic weapons "has no historical pedigree." Prior to the 1990s, there was no national history of banning weapons because they were equipped with "furniture" such as pistol grips, collapsible stocks, flash hiders, flare launchers, or threaded barrels. Prior to California’s 1989 ban, assault weapons were lawfully manufactured, acquired, and possessed throughout the United States, Benitez said.
"In the United States, with its long tradition of gun ownership, there are no historical laws prohibiting simple possession of any type of firearm until long after the 1868 adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment. That is too late," he wrote.
"The State has identified no national tradition of firearm regulation so broad in its coverage or so far reaching in its effect as its extreme 'assault weapon' statutes," Benitez said.
Governments can't be relied on to decide what weapons people can use; governments are "who the Second Amendment was intended to protect against," Benitez said. "But we can look to what weapons law-abiding citizens have chosen to defend themselves – that is, what weapons are currently 'in common use' … for lawful purposes," he said, quoting past court decisions.
It is the common firearms, in this case semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and pistols, chosen for whatever the lawful reason, that are protected by the Second Amendment, he said.
"Like a cut diamond, the uniquely American right to keep and bear arms is multifaceted. The unalienable right to have firearms for self-defense existed before the Bill of Rights and today remains the central protection of the Second Amendment. It is a right that was recognized in English common law and in the American colonies," he said.
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. … The 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," he wrote.
State officials strongly condemned the court's decision. In a statement on Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom vowed to challenge Benitez's decision.
“Today’s radical ruling -- comparing an assault rifle to a bowie knife -- is 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, public safety be damned," Newsom said.
California’s gun safety laws work and keep families safer, Newsom said. The state's gun death rate is 43% lower than the national average.
“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,” Newsom said.
Attorney General Rob Bonta immediately filed a notice of appeal to overturn the decision.