A FEDERAL judge in California overturned the state's three-decade-old ban on assault rifles – saying that owning an AR-15 is like having a "Swiss Army knife".
U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ruled that California's definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding residents of weapons commonly allowed in most other states and backed up by the Supreme Court.
"Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive," the San Diego-based Benitez said, according to the Associated Press.
The decision lifts a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law but then stayed it for a month to allow state Attorney General Rob Bonta enough time to appeal.
Gov. Gavin Newsom called the decision a "direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period."
In Benitez's 94-page decision, he praised the advances in weapons technology and suggested that they had many legal uses in society.
"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 wrote.
Gov. Newsom disagreed.
"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.
"We're not backing down from this fight, and we'll continue pushing for common-sense gun laws that will save lives."
AG Bonta already described the judge's decision as flawed and said an appeal was forthcoming.
California first placed restrictions on assault weapons back in 1989, adding a variety of updates to the law since then.
The state attorney general's office argued that by legal definition, assault weapons are more dangerous than other firearms and are chosen when criminals commit crimes, mass shootings and attack law enforcement.
They also result in greater casualties.
Barring them has proven the state's preservation of public safety.
The argument against also cites the sales of more than 1 million other types of pistols, rifles and shotguns in the last year – where more than a third of them were likely bought by first-time buyers.
This suggests 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, according to the state's position in a March court filing, according to the AP.
California isn't the only state to ban assault weapons.
There have been six other federal district and appeals courts where the opposition to them was upheld.
The judge didn't agree.
"This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection," Benitez wrote in his ruling, according to the AP.
"The banned assault weapons are not bazookas, howitzers, or machine guns. Those arms are dangerous and solely useful for military purposes."
While California's ban has been enforced, the state still boasts an estimated 185,569 registered assault weapons, the judge noted.
"This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes," the ruling states.
"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."
Benitez went on: "In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle."
In his preliminary ruling in the fall, Benitez called California's complicated legal definition of assault weapons as causing law-abiding gun owners to face criminal penalties and put them at risk of losing their prized Second Amendment right.
"The burden on the core Second Amendment right, if any, is minimal, the state argued, because the weapons can still be used just not with the modifications that turn them into assault weapons," he wrote then, the AP reported.
Various modifications such as a shorter barrel or collapsible stock can make assault weapons more concealable, state officials said, while accessories like a pistol grip or thumbhole grip up the lethality of the guns by improving their accuracy when fired again and again.
The lawsuit to take on California's gun laws, which are considered some of the most stringent in the country, was filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition among other gun advocacy groups, the AP confirmed.
The suit came back in August 2019 after multiple mass shootings in the US involved assault rifles.
These gun owners say they want to use high-capacity magazines in their legal rifles or pistols but said doing so would be considered illegal under California law.
They argue that 41 other states consider such magazines to be legal.
The lawsuit said California is one of only a small handful 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, frequently but not exclusively along with detachable ammunition magazines.
Back in 2017, Benitez reuled that the nearly longtime ban on the sales and purchases of magazines holding more than 10 bullets.
That decision led to a frenzy for firearms until the judge halted sales during the appeal.
It was upheld in August by a three-judge appellate panel, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in March that an 11-member panel will rehear the case.
The state also is appealing Benitez's April 2020 decision blocking a 2019 California law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.
Both of those gun restricting measures were pushed by Gov. Newsom when he was lieutenant governor, and they were backed by voters in a 2016 ballot measure.
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