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California ban on assault weapons ruled unconstitutional by federal judge

A federal judge in California ruled that the state's ban on assault weapons is unconstitutional, a major defeat for gun control advocates as Democrats eye a federal prohibition on the same kind of guns.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego issued a 94-page ruling panning the 30-year-old ban as an overstep by the state government and a violation of the Constitution’s Second Amendment, likening the AR-15, a popular rifle, to a “Swiss Army Knife” that is “Good for both home and battle.”

“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 machineguns. Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes,” Benitez wrote Friday. “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.”

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The judge, a George W. Bush appointee, boiled his ruling down to the concept that a state should not “force a gun policy choice that impinges on that right with a 30-year-old failed experiment.” 

“Government is not free to impose its own new policy choices on American citizens where constitutional rights are concerned,” he wrote. “California may certainly conceive of a policy that a modern rifle is dangerous in the hands of a criminal, and that therefore it is good public policy to keep modern rifles out of the hands of every citizen. The Second Amendment stands as a shield from government imposition of that policy.”

While Benitez deemed California’s ban unconstitutional, he still allowed for a 30-day stay before his ruling takes effect, allowing California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D), the defendant in the case, to appeal.

“Because this case involves serious questions going to the merits, a temporary stay is in the public interest. This declaration and permanent injunction are stayed for 30 days during which time the Attorney General may appeal and seek a stay from the Court of Appeals,” he wrote. 

Still, the ruling drew swift pushback from Bonta and California Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomCalifornia debates extending eviction moratorium to pay off all past-due rent from pandemic 'Aggressive individual' arrested after interaction with Newsom California grid operator calls on residents to conserve electricity amid heat wave MORE (D), with both suggesting that Benitez was downplaying the risk posed by weapons like the AR-15.

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“Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed, and we will be appealing it. There is no sound basis in law, fact, or common sense for equating assault rifles with swiss army knives — especially on Gun Violence Awareness Day and after the recent shootings in our own California communities. We need to take action to end gun violence now. We will fight this ruling and continue to advocate for and defend common sense gun laws that will save lives,” Bonta said in a statement

“Today’s decision is a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period,” added Newsom. “[T]he fact that this judge compared the AR-15 – a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield – to a Swiss Army Knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon.”

Benitez’s ruling marks a defeat for Democrats who have looked to expand gun control in recent years, only to be rebuffed by conservative judges and Republicans in Congress. The ruling on Bonta’s appeal could hold sway over whether Democrats, led by President BidenJoe BidenMilitary must better understand sexual assaults to combat them The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population On The Money: Democrats make full-court press on expanded child tax credit | White House confident Congress will raise debt ceiling MORE, will be successful in their push to implement a federal ban on assault weapons, a prohibition Biden promised on the campaign trail he would put into effect.

Gun rights advocates hailed Benitez’s ruling, saying they would be prepared to fight to uphold it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.

“This historic victory for individual liberty is just the beginning, and FPC [Firearms Policy Coalition] will continue to aggressively challenge these laws throughout the United States. We look forward to continuing this challenge at the Ninth Circuit and, should it be necessary, the Supreme Court,” FPC President Brandon Combs, whose group helped bring the lawsuit to court, said in a statement.