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June 7, 2021, 9:07 a.m. EDT

Federal judge in San Diego overturns 32-year-old California ban on assault weapons

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Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — A federal judge has overturned California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, calling it a “failed experiment” that violates people’s constitutional right to bear arms.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego ruled on Friday that 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.

“Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive,” Benitez said. He issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law but stayed it for 30 days to give state Attorney General Rob Bonta time to appeal.

Gov. Gavin Newsom condemned the decision, calling it “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period.”

In his 94-page ruling, the judge spoke favorably of modern weapons and said they were overwhelmingly used for legal reasons.

“Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Good for both home and battle,” the judge said in his ruling’s introduction.

That comparison “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,” Newsom said in a statement. “We’re not backing down from this fight, and we’ll continue pushing for common sense gun laws that will save lives.”

Bonta called the ruling flawed and said it will be appealed.

California first restricted assault weapons in 1989, with multiple updates to the law since then.

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.”

A surge in sales of more than 1.16 million other types of pistols, rifles and shotguns in the last year — more than a third of them to likely first-time buyers — show that the assault weapons ban “has not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense,” the state contended in a court filing in March.

Similar assault weapon restrictions have previously been upheld by six other federal district and appeals courts, the state argued. Overturning the ban would allow not only assault rifles, but things like assault shotguns and assault pistols, state officials said.

But Benitez disagreed. “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 arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes,” his ruling said. “Instead, the firearms deemed ‘assault weapons’ are fairly ordinary, popular, modern.”

The judge said despite California’s ban, there currently are an estimated 185,569 assault weapons registered with the state.

They were grandfathered in before California’s evolving definition of an assault weapon.

“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” the ruling said. “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. The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter.”

“In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle,” he added.

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