Judge Roger Benitez, of the United States Southern California District Court, issued a decision where he ruled that California’s Ar-15 ban is unconstitutional. The case, which pitted plaintiff James Milner and others against California’s Attorney General, challenged the constitutionality of the set of regulations in California that effectively makes it illegal to own “assault firearms” saying they violate the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.
In a 94-page decision, filed on June 4th, Benitez makes an allegory of the AR-15 and the Swiss Army knife saying that “like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense and homeland defense equipment”. He then elaborates that the versatility of the AR-15, which he says is “good for both home and battle”, would grant it the protected status that was defined in the landmark gun right cases District of Columbia v. Heller and United States v. Miller.
The Heller decision has been particularly important in the jurisprudence of gun right cases since the Supreme Court landed its decision in 2008. In that case, the court struck down a regulation by the District of Columbia that basically banned the acquisition of handguns, the argument is used is that the second amendment protects the “use of arms for traditionally lawful purposes” to regular citizens, not only to government-sponsored militias.
Benitez draws on Heller by arguing that since the court has ruled that the Constitution allows citizens to carry weapons for legitimate purposes, including some firearms that might have some military use, then it would be unconstitutional to ban the use of AR-15s. The judge said that while there are precedents to limit the purchasing of some guns that have sole military purposes, this should be the exception and not the rule.
The judge said that assault weapons are not ” bazookas, howitzers or machine guns” and that the firearms that are being banned under that category are just rifles that are modern, popular and ordinary, saying that “this is a case about an average gun, used in average ways, for average purposes”.
He also chastised the media coverage over the sue of assault weapons, saying that while it would be understandable to think that the country is “awashed with murdereous AR-15 rifles”, that is simply not the case. In that, the judge is factually correct, the 2019 FBI data showing the weapons used in murders across the U.S illustrates that while 10,258 people were killed by a firearm, only 364 were due to a rifle, with the vast majority of deaths (6,368) being caused by handguns.
The judge issued an injunction on the state laws that have maintained a ban over assault rifles since 1989 and gave the state safety officials an order to not implement the sections in the California criminal code that are related to assault weapons, effectively overturning them.
Reactions to the overturn of California’s AR-15 ban
As expected, gun-control advocates have railed against the decision by Judge Benitez. In an interview with CNN, gun-control activist Fred Guttenberg (who lost his daughter at the Parkland shooting) said that “if a swiss army knife were to be used, my daughter would still be alive”, he also called the judge a “liar” and accused him of using the “same language as the gun lobby” when drafting his opinion on the case.
California’s Attorney General issued a statement responding to the ruling, saying that the decision handed by Benitez was “fundamentally flawed”, that equating assault rifles with swiss army knives are neither based on the law nor on common sense. In the statement, the AG’s office said they would appeal the ruling in the federal court system and “continue to advocate for and defend common sense gun laws that will save lives.”
Gun advocates, expectedly, have praised the decision by Benitez. The Firearms Policy Coalition issued a news release calling the decision a “historic victory for individual liberty”, with their President saying that Benitez “held what millions of Americans already know to be true: Bans on so-called ‘assault weapons’ are unconstitutional”.
The National Rifle Association, also posted a tweet responding to a critic of the decision, where they said that millions of Americans already own AR-15 (making it a common weapon) and arguing that a ban on assault rifles do not have a positive impact on crime rates.
If California’s AG decides to continue to appeal the Benitez decision, then they would have to follow the process up to the court of appeals. If either side is dissatisfied with that outcome (the most likely scenario), then they could issue a petition for the Supreme Court to hear the case. The new court, with a 6-3 conservative majority, will decide over a case on gun control later this summer and that judgement could give us a better glimpse on how will the new bench rule on 2nd amendment-related cases.
Although there is common-ground public support for some gun control policies, partisan differences are significantly high when dealing with more controversial topics, with a ban on assault weapons being among those. As with many divisive issues in American politics, we can expect the Supreme Court to have the ultimate voice over it.