The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, has slammed a federal judge’s decision to overturn his state’s three-decade-old ban on assault rifles as “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians”.
In a strongly worded attack, the Democrat added: “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.”
Newsom issued his stinging statement late on Friday after Roger Benitez, a district judge in San Diego appointed by George W Bush, ruled that the state was unlawfully depriving law-abiding Californians of weapons allowed under US supreme court rulings, denying their right to bear arms.
“Under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive,” Benitez wrote, issuing a permanent injunction stayed for 30 days. The California attorney general, Rob Bonta, called Benitez’s ruling flawed and said it would be appealed.
Assault-style rifles are disproportionately used in crime and have been used in most modern US mass shootings, including the slaughter of 20 young children and six adults at a school in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012, 49 clubbers in Orlando, Florida in June 2016 and 58 concertgoers in Las Vegas in October 2017.
The California assault rifles ban has been in place since 1989. Assault rifles have been used in mass shootings in the state, including in San Bernardino in 2015 when 14 were killed.
Nonetheless, Benitez said: “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 state argued that a surge in sales of pistols, rifles and shotguns in the last year showed 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”.
Assault weapon restrictions have been upheld by six federal district and appeals courts, the state argued. Overturning the ban would allow things like assault shotguns and assault pistols, it said.
Benitez said: “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.”
Despite the ban an estimated 185,569 assault weapons are registered with the state, the judge added.
“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” he wrote. “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.”
The lawsuit was filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition. It is among several challenging California firearms laws. The suit was filed in August 2019, following a series of mass shootings.
The state is appealing a 2017 ruling by Benitez against a nearly two-decade-old ban on the sale of magazines holding more than 10 bullets. That decision led to a buying spree before the judge intervened. It was upheld in August but the 9th US circuit court of appeals said in March an 11-member panel will rehear the case.
The state also is appealing an April 2020 decision by Benitez which blocked a 2019 law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.
Both measures were championed by Newsom as lieutenant governor – and backed by voters in 2016.