A federal judge Thursday overturned California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, finding it has no equivalent in early American history and is therefore unconstitutional.
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, of San Diego, found that modern semiautomatic rifles such as the AR-15 are common household items used for self-defense by millions of law-abiding citizens in the U.S., and that those citizens may not have their 2nd Amendment rights abridged by the state simply because others may misuse the same weapons in mass shootings and other deadly violence.
“Guns and ammunition in the hands of criminals, tyrants and terrorists are dangerous; guns in the hands of law-abiding responsible citizens are necessary,” Benitez wrote. “To give full life to the core right of self-defense, every law-abiding responsible individual citizen has a constitutionally protected right to keep and bear firearms commonly owned and kept for lawful purposes.”
The decision was expected from Benitez, who had previously struck down the law in a 2021 decision in which he famously compared the AR-15 to common knives — an analogy he took up again Thursday.
“Like the Bowie Knife which was commonly carried by citizens and soldiers in the 1800s,” Benitez’s latest decision begins, “‘assault weapons’ are dangerous, but useful.”
Benitez’s decision would overturn several state statutes related to such weapons, but does not take effect immediately. As part of his decision, Benitez gave the state 10 days to seek a stay on the ruling as part of an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
John Dillon, an attorney for the plaintiffs who sued to overturn the law, said they were “very happy” with the decision and ready to keep fighting to preserve it if the state does appeal.
“It seems like the court has applied the standards properly and correctly. There’s no doubt about it,” he said. “We’re glad that our plaintiffs’ rights are going to be respected.”
The ruling is the second recent decision against California gun restrictions from Benitez. Last month, he overturned the state’s ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines on similar grounds.
Benitez’s ruling is also just the latest blow to gun restrictions nationally since the Supreme Court’s monumental pro-gun rights decision last year in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. vs. Bruen.
In that case, the nation’s highest court rejected a long-standing pillar of 2nd Amendment law, that governments may enforce certain firearms restrictions if they have a compelling government interest in doing so. Instead, the high court said most restrictions on firearms can only be legitimate if they are deeply rooted in American history or analogous to some historical rule.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had sent the case decided Thursday back down to Benitez, specifically to decide in light of the Bruen decision.