Federal court blocks ruling overturning California's assault rifle ban

The ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals comes hours before the court hears an NRA-backed case

By Jon Skolnik
Published June 22, 2021 10:51AM (EDT)
Numerous Assault Rifles Hanging On Wall (Getty Images)
Numerous Assault Rifles Hanging On Wall (Getty Images)

In a one-page order issued on Monday, a federal appeals court blocked a federal judge's recent controversial ruling that overturned California's 30-year assault weapons ban.  The stay issued by the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit is "pending decisions in other gun cases that are now before the court," the Los Angeles Times noted.

"The stay shall remain in effect until further order of this court," wrote Senior Circuit Court Judge Barry Silverman, Circuit Judges Jacqueline Nguyen and Ryan Nelson. 

California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed an appeal against a surprise ruling earlier this month that reversed California's decades-old ban on assault rifles, likening the AR-15, a lightweight semi-automatic rifle, to Swiss army knives. U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego issued an injunction to suspend the ban, arguing that the state restriction impinged upon California residents' Second Amendment right to bear arms.

"Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment," Benitez said in his ruling. "Firearms deemed as 'assault weapons' are fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles."

"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 judge added, castigating the current media narrative around gun violence. "The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter."

Benitez, however, granted a request by Bonta to allow a 30-day stay on the ruling.

"Today's decision is fundamentally flawed," Bonta said in response to the initial ruling. "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."

The ban was originally implemented back in 1989 under Gov. George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican who supported the measure but resisted sweeping gun reform. The measure prohibited the sale of at least 24 different types of assault weapons, including the AK-47 and the Uzi.

However, in 2019, a lawsuit filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation, and Firearms Policy Coalition revitalized the debate, arguing that the 1989 ban restricts the rights of gun owners who want to use high-capacity magazines in otherwise legal rifles. 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," the pro-gun group argued in their suit. 

In 2017, Benitez blocked a state restriction on magazines of over 10 rounds. An appeals court affirmed his ruling but added in February of this year that the case would be reheard. Benitez's latest ruling was met with substantial backlash from both state officials gun reform advocates across the country.

"Overturning CA's assault weapon ban and comparing an AR-15 to a SWISS ARMY KNIFE is a disgusting slap in the face to those who have lost loved ones to gun violence," California Gov. Gavin Newsom wrote. "This is a direct threat to public safety and innocent Californians. We won't stand for it."

Brandon Wolf, a survivor of the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016 – in which a shooter armed with several semi-automatic rifles murdered 50 guests – wrote on Twitter: "I can assure you — if a Swiss Army knife was used at Pulse, we would have had a birthday party for my best friend last week. Not a vigil."

California is home to 185,569 assault rifles, according to Benitez, and as Bonta points out, has one of the lowest firearm mortality rates in the U.S. CNN reported that most mass shootings throughout modern human history have involved the use of such weapons.


Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, AlterNet, and The New York Daily News.

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