Judge Roger Benitez ruled on June 4 that California’s assault weapons ban is unconstitutional. His order preventing any state authority from prosecuting people under the law is not in force, however. Benitez, a George W. Bush appointee to California’s Southern District Court, issued a 94-page opinion but gave the state 30 days to appeal – and appeal it will, as California’s Attorney General Rob Bonta quickly affirmed, calling the opinion “fundamentally flawed.” The case, Miller v. Becerra, was filed in 2019 by a coalition of gun rights groups.
Judge Benitez, who in 2017 ruled against California’s ban on so-called “high capacity” magazines wrote, in part:
“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 AR-15 is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) and United States v Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle. Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional.”
That quote above is the first paragraph of the opinion. It’s not hard to find favor with Cuban-born Judge Benitez’s clear statements in support of rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment. With this ruling, he will no doubt enhance his popularity among gun-rights proponents. Benitez was no stranger to California gun activists due to his previous ruling overturning California’s magazine ban.
Assuming the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals continues its historical distaste for honoring the right to keep and bear arms, however, Benitez’s ruling will never be enforced. There may be a third life for the arguments in this decision, beyond and perhaps above the Ninth Circuit. That would come as the foundation and basis for other district court opinions, appeals court opinions, and maybe even the United States Supreme Court.
Judge Benitez spent 94 pages planting the seeds of future judicial opinions on this issue. Perhaps that’s what California’s rabidly anti-gun attorney general thought when he included this denouncement in his statement on the 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 opinion is replete with factual findings and arguments, dismantling the gun-grabbers’ case point by point. For example, typical hunting rifles fire much more powerful cartridges than a standard AR-15, and judge Benitez documents the medical analysis as to why. He also eviscerates the demonization of the AR-15 while elevating the case for protecting gun owners:
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. 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.
As judicial opinion go, Benitez’s was a love letter to the AR-15, and while no one should rely on it to stand, they should expect it to influence judicial opinion moving forward. As for how much, we shall simply have to wait and see. The Ninth Circuit will likely grant General Bonta’s request for a stay and only decide the case on its merits years from now.
Read more from Scott D. Cosenza.