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Judge rules California's ban on assault weapons unconstitutional

In his decision, Judge Roger T. Benitez praised the AR-15 as a "home defense weapon."
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SANDIEGO — A federal judge on Friday struck down California's ban on assault weapons as unconstitutional but left plenty of time for the state to file an appeal.

The state’s definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly allowed in most other states and by the U.S. Supreme Court, the judge wrote.

Judge Roger T. Benitez, who has favored pro-gun groups in past rulings, described the AR-15 rifle, used in many of the nation's deadliest mass shootings, as an ideal weapon.

"Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment," he wrote in Friday's decision.

"Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle," Benitez continued. "Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional."

He praised the AR-15 as a rifle that should be formally protected by the law for its "militia readiness."

Gov. Gavin Newsom was indignant in a statement late Friday.

"The 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," he said.

The office of Attorney General Rob Bonta said it would appeal.

"Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed, and we will be appealing it," Bonta said in a statement Friday night. "There is no sound basis in law, fact, or common sense for equating assault rifles with swiss army knives."

The Firearms Policy Coalition, which backed the suit, celebrated the decision. "We look forward to continuing this challenge at the Ninth Circuit and, should it be necessary, the Supreme Court," the group's president, Brandon Combs, said in a statement.

The ruling came as Bonta recognized "Gun Violence Awareness Day." "In California, we have strong gun laws developed with the public’s safety in mind,” he said in a statement earlier Friday.

Assault weapons as defined by the law are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes, mass shootings and against law enforcement, with more resulting casualties, the state attorney general’s office argued, and barring them “furthers the state’s important public safety interests.”

The judge in the U.S. District Court's Southern District of California cited multiple precedents to bolster his decision, although some experts and gun control advocates have long argued the authors of the Second Amendment could never have imagined a weapon originally designed for modern warfare being used for personal defense.

"Government is not free to impose its own new policy choices on American citizens where Constitutional rights are concerned," the judge wrote.

Benitez stayed his own permanent injunction against the state's prohibition for 30 days in order to give the attorney general time to appeal.

California first prohibited assault weapons in 1989 and expanded its definition to cover more firearms over the years.

The plaintiff, James Miller, along with Patrick Russ and Ryan Peterson, had argued that assault weapons are protected under the Second Amendment. They filed suit against the state in 2019.

Earlier this year, after a man allegedly killed 10 people at a Colorado grocery store with what witnesses described as an AR-15-style rifle, President Joe Biden called on Congress to pass a national assault weapon ban.