In a statement late Friday, the governor called Judge Benitez’s ruling “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians.”
The decision on Friday arose from a 2019 lawsuit filed by James Miller, a California resident, and the San Diego County Gun Owners, a political action committee. Gun advocates say that the case echoes the arguments of at least one other legal challenge already pending in appellate court.
The suit charges that California is “one of only a small handful of states to ban many of the most popular semiautomatic firearms in the nation because they possess one or more common characteristics, such as pistol grips and threaded barrels.” Other states with assault weapons bans include New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland and Massachusetts.
A federal assault weapons ban adopted in 1994, following on the heels of California’s policy, expired a decade later, allowing the AR-15 to re-enter the American gun market. Such weapons, which are often used with detachable magazines for ammunition, have been associated with mass shootings nationally, including the 2018 killing of 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Fla.
Judge Benitez wrote that California’s ban, which has been revised several times over the years, violates the Second Amendment and characterized AR-15s as “fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles,” not “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns.”
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” the judge wrote, adding that the case was about “what should be a muscular constitutional right and whether a state can force a gun policy choice that impinges on that right with a 30-year-old failed experiment.”
The judge and his writing style were familiar to advocates on both sides of the debate. In 2017, Judge Benitez struck down a law passed by the state’s voters that would have banned possession of magazines holding more than 10 bullets, a decision that is currently pending on appeal before the Ninth Circuit. In that ruling, which briefly flooded California with the sort of large-capacity magazines that were used last month in the San Jose rail yard shooting, the judge wrote that “the problem of mass shootings is very small.”