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San Diego Judge Overturns California Assault Weapons Ban

Three variations of the AR-15 rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif., in a 2012 photo.
Rich Pedroncelli AP
Three variations of the AR-15 rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif., in a 2012 photo.

A San Diego federal court judge Friday overturned California's three-decade-old ban on assault weapons, ruling "the state's definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly allowed in most other states."

In a 94-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez, an appointee of then-President George W. Bush, wrote, "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 and United States v. Miller.

San Diego Judge Overturns California Assault Weapons Ban
Listen to this story by Jacob Aere.

"Yet, the state of California makes it a crime to have an AR-15-type rifle. Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional."

San Diego Judge Overturns California Assault Weapons Ban

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Benitez issued a 30-day stay of his order to give state Attorney General Rob Bonta the opportunity to appeal the ruling in Miller v. Bonta, keeping the law in effect.

Bonta called the decision "fundamentally flawed" and said he would file an appeal.

"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," Bonta said.

"We need to take action to end gun violence now. We will fight this ruling and continue to advocate for and defend common-sense gun laws that will save lives."

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John Dillon is the attorney for the gun owners rights groups which filed the suit. They argued their second amendment rights were restricted because the state’s definition of an assault weapon was broadened over time.

“It's an ever-expanding, ever-changing law that we were challenging. And basically the difference is the attachments that go to the gun. These differences don't do anything to the actual function or the ballistics of a firearm,” Dillon said.

The ruling comes at a time when the nation continues to grapple with gun violence, with a rise in mass shootings and a push from some lawmakers to ban assault weapons.

Carol Landale is a San Diego County resident and member of multiple gun control organizations including San Diegans For Gun Violence Prevention.

She said these organizations don't want to take firearms away from responsible gun owners, but the recent ruling on assault weapons poses a serious risk for further gun violence.

“Already we see that states with less restrictive gun laws have a much higher death rate from guns, and that’s both homicide and suicide,” Landale said. “So we know that these laws do work. They’re not the only solution, but they are part of the solution.”

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Gov. Gavin Newsom called the decision "a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period.

"As the son of a judge, I grew up with deep respect for the judicial process and the importance of a judge's ability to make impartial fact-based rulings, but the fact that this judge compared the AR-15 — a weapon of war that's used on the battlefield — to a Swiss Army knife 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."

Judge Benitez previously ruled that the state’s ban on high-capacity magazines was unconstitutional and also overturned the restriction on remote purchases of gun ammunition. The state is appealing both of those decisions.