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California appeals judge’s ruling that overturned the state’s ‘assault weapons’ ban

California has appealed a judge's ruling that the state's ban on assault weapons is unconstitutional. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

California Attorney General Rob Bonta on Thursday filed an appeal to a federal court decision that overturned the state’s ban on “assault weapons,” arguing that the law is needed “to protect the safety of Californians.”

The appeal seeks to reverse Friday’s decision by U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, who said the state’s three-decade ban on “assault weapons” is an unconstitutional infringement on the rights of California gun owners that “has had no effect” on curtailing mass shootings.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined Bonta in making the announcement at Zuckerman San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, a leading facility for treating gunshot victims.

“California’s assault weapons ban has saved lives, and we refuse to let these weapons of war back onto our streets,” said Newsom, who was elected on a platform that included expanding gun control laws. “This is a fight California will never back down from, period.”

The case has implications for gun laws beyond California. Six other states and the District of Columbia followed California in adopting their own “assault weapons” bans, and Congress enacted a ban in 1994, although it expired 10 years later.

Though other courts have upheld “assault weapon” bans, supporters of the gun law worry Benitez’s decision is part of a strategy by the gun lobby to get cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, where appointments by former President Donald Trump are seen as more sympathetic to Second Amendment arguments.

“A lot is on the line,” Newsom said.

The judge issued a permanent injunction against the enforcement of key provisions of the law, but stayed the order for 30 days to allow the state to appeal.

Bonta said his filing Thursday with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco asks for the stay to be extended until the case is decided.

“The ban on assault weapons will not put an end to all gun violence, but it is one important tool the state has to protect the safety of Californians while also respecting the rights of law-abiding residents who choose to possess firearms,” Bonta said Thursday.

The Firearms Policy Coalition, one of the plaintiffs that sued to overturn the ban, said it would oppose any delays past the 30-day stay issued by Benitez.

The coalition “will aggressively litigate this case on appeal and will take every action to defend the Court’s legally- and historically-correct decision up to and at the U.S. Supreme Court,” the group said in a written statement, calling the ban “tyrannical.”

Bonta was especially critical of Benitez’s decision for comparing the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to a Swiss Army knife, with the judge calling it “good for both home and battle.”

“Equating firearms that have been used in many of the deadliest mass shootings in this country with Swiss Army knives has no basis in law or fact,” Bonta said.

California was the first state in the nation to ban “assault weapons” when it acted more than three decades ago in the wake of a shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton that killed five children and wounded 29 others.

The original law banning the manufacture and sale of some 60 models of rifles was signed five months after the Stockton shooting by then-Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican.

Lawmakers expanded the law several times over the following years to add a features-based definition of “assault weapons” to stop gun manufacturers from producing functionally identical firearms to the ones that are banned by model.

“This ban was enacted after a shooting that took the lives of five schoolchildren and injured countless more, and my administration will do whatever it takes to continue protecting Californians and leading the nation in gun safety laws,” said Newsom, who as lieutenant governor authored Proposition 63, a 2016 initiative approved by voters to toughen state law with measures including a ban on the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

Sam Paredes, executive director of Gun Owners of California, said another case already before the 9th Circuit is more likely to get to the Supreme Court first.

“We are further down the road than the governor thinks,” Paredes said.

He said of the state appeal filed Thursday and supported by Newsom, “It’s him forgetting he is governor, and not king.”

Gun control advocates are hopeful the case will be settled in the state’s favor.

“We expect the 9th Circuit to do the right thing and reverse this decision,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Newsom, whose father was a judge, criticized Benitez, calling his decision “shameful” and noting it was issued on Gun Violence Awareness Day.

“Judge Benitez is a stone-cold ideologue,” Newsom said. “He is a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association.”

The Firearms Policy Coalition responded that it “condemns” the governor’s verbal attack on the judge.

“Newsom’s verbal assaults on a long-respected member of the judiciary shows his deep and continuing disrespect for the rule of law, the judiciary, the Constitution, and the human rights of California citizens,” the statement said.

Benitez did not immediately respond to calls to his courtroom seeking comment on the criticism by the governor.

Benitez’s ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed in 2019 by three San Diego gun owners and advocacy groups including the Firearms Policy Coalition, California Gun Rights Foundation and Second Amendment Foundation.

The judge, who has ruled against other California gun laws, said the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires protection of the rights of people to bear arms. The Second Amendment, he wrote, “elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.”

Benitez also disputed the argument of state officials that the “assault weapons” ban has reduced gun violence. He said the number of mass shootings is about the same as it was before the ban.

“The assault weapon ban has had no effect,” Benitez wrote in his 94-page ruling. “California’s experiment is a failure.”

But state officials said there is evidence that the law has prevented gun deaths.

On Thursday, Bonta cited a study by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund, which found that, for the last 12 years, the use of an assault weapon in a mass shooting has led to “six times as many people shot per incident than when there was no assault weapon.”

Mattie Scott, California president of the gun control group Brady, said the gun homicide rate in California is 37% lower than the national rate. She accused Benitez of being “ideological,” noting that her son was killed by an assault weapon and she is offended that the judge compared such firearms to a pocket knife.

Andre Campbell, a trauma surgeon at the San Francisco hospital where Bonta made the announcement, said “assault weapons” cause “absolute devastation to the human body” in patients he sees.

“It is a gun used for warfare, and it should not be used on the streets of the United States,” he said.

Campbell said that there have been some 260 mass shootings in the United States so far this year, calling it a “public health crisis.”


©2021 Los Angeles Times.

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