US District Judge Overturns California Firearms Ban For Second Time

California has maintained a ban on the sale, transfer, and possession of rifles deemed by the state to be “assault weapons” for more than three decades but has now lost two attempts to preserve the ban in court. On October 19, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ruled against the state law for the second time. Benitez had previously declared the ban unconstitutional in 2021, but his ruling had been returned by an Appeals court in the wake of a monumental ruling in New York that established the individual right to possess firearms for self defense.

California defines “assault rifles,” a term that is not used in the firearms industry, as a semi-automatic rifle with a detachable magazine and one of several other design elements such as a forward hand grip or a collapsible stock. Popular rifles like the Armalite Rifle 15 (AR-15) fall under the blanket ban by the state.

In his ruling, Benitez points out that it is unconstitutional for the state to apply a ban on an otherwise constitutionally-protected right based on a relatively small handful of criminals who violate the law.

“California’s answer to the criminal misuse of a few is to disarm its many good residents,” Benitez wrote in his ruling “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.”

Rifles account for a small percentage of homicides and accidental shootings, the two most frequently highlighted reasons for preventing law abiding citizens from owning these rifles. California law excludes law enforcement and certain other persons from the ban which has led to several manufacturers pulling their products from the sale.

Benitez also struck down a California law last month that prevented the sale of magazines capable of holding more than ten rounds. That ban affected sport shooters and collectors of vintage firearms as many rifles built between the Second World War and Vietnam -now collectibles- never had magazine capacity of less than 30 rounds.

While Benitez signaled that the law is unconstitutional and should not be enforced, he also issued a temporary stay in judgment to allow the state time to appeal before the law was stricken. California Attorney General Rob Bonta has already filed an appeal of the ruling, calling it “good law.”

California’s semi-automatic rifle ban and similar laws in other states have been a primary driver behind the development of kit guns and so-called “ghost guns” that allow law abiding individuals and criminals to skirt the regulations. Recent federal action by the Biden administration aims to squeeze manufacturers of kits that are used to build firearms at home.

There is no conclusive evidence that bans of firearms lead to reductions in crime, though some studies indicate that there is a correlation. During the 10-year federal ban, mass shooting deaths were down, but following the sunset of that law in 2004, mass shooting incidents and deaths have both increased. Whether the cause is radicalization, mental health, or the relative ease of availability of semi-automatic firearms is impossible to discern, researchers caution.