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California appeals federal judge’s ruling overturning ‘assault weapons’ ban

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California is appealing a federal judge’s ruling last week tossing out the state’s years-old ban on so-called “assault weapons,” with officials claiming that a half-dozen other federal courts have upheld such bans and accusing the magistrate of trying to get the issue before the more gun-friendly U.S. Supreme Court.

State Attorney General Rob Bonta’s three-page filing Thursday with the reliably liberal but oft-overturned Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco comes after U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled last week the 32-year-old law violated the Second Amendment.

Bonta argued that the ban should remain in order “to protect the safety of Californians,” though crime is soaring throughout the state in spite of the prohibition.

The AG’s office said Bonta asked the court to stay Benitez’s order pending the appeal process.

“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez wrote in his ruling. Good for both home and battle, the AR-15 is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under District of Columbia v. Heller.

“Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle. Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional,” he added.

California passed its ban in 1989 in the belief that shootings and violence would be reduced. Benitez called the ban a “failed experiment” in criminal justice reform.

“One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles,” he said. “The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter.”

He went on to discount the term “assault weapon” as a “misnomer,” instead calling them  “home defense rifles” or “anti-crime guns.”

“This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection. The banned ‘assault weapons’ are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns. Those guns are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes,” Benitez wrote.

“Instead, the firearms deemed ‘assault weapons’ are fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles. This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” he added.

In March 2019, Benitez also overturned Calfornia’s ban on firearms magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, writing that “individual liberty and freedom are not outmoded concepts.” After the a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit upheld his ruling in a 2-1 decision last year, then-California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, now the secretary of Health and Human Services, requested the entire 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rehear the case. That hearing is scheduled for June 22.

Critics blasted Benitez’s reversal of the AR-15 and similar rifle ban, including San Francisco General trauma surgeon Dr. Andre Campbell.

“An AR-15 is a weapon of mass destruction … used in warfare,” he falsely claimed; the military’s version of the weapon is called an M-4 and it a much more heavy-duty weapon than a standard AR-15.

He went on to say the popular sporting rifle “causes absolute devastation to the human body,” adding: “It is as if a bomb went off in the tissues of the patient.”

But that can be said of any number of firearms that are not banned in California, supporters of the decision to overturn the ban have argued.

Gov. Gavin Newsom railed at Benitez as well, accusing him without evidence of being “a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby of the National Rifle Association.”

“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,” said a plaintiff in the gun case, Firearms Policy Coalition, in a statement.

The Benitez case is Miller v. Bonta.

Jon Dougherty

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