The last round of briefs have been filed, and now both sides in the legal fight over California’s ban on so-called assault weapons are waiting to learn what a federal judge has to say about the constitutionality of the state law. Given that U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez has already ruled the gun ban is invalid once before, however, there’s not much doubt about what the judge will conclude the second time around.
It was two years ago that Benitez originally ruled against California in a lawsuit known as Miller v. Bonta; a decision that was stayed by a three-judge panel on the Ninth Circuit. Rather than hold on to the case, which would have expedited its journey to the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit vacated its decision and remanded the lawsuit back to Benitez’s court after the Court’s decision in Bruen last June. Ostensibly the move was to allow for both sides to make new arguments based on the history, text, and tradition test laid out in Bruen, but there are a lot of Second Amendment supporters who suspect that the Ninth Circuit, which has never found a gun control law to be unconstitutional in the nearly 15 years since the Heller decision was handed down, is simply trying to play keep-away with the Supreme Court on an issue of fundamental importance by unnecessarily sending the case back to Benitez and starting the legal process all over.
Rick Travis, the California Rifle & Pistol Association’s legislative affairs director, is already warning gun owners that even a good decision from Benitez won’t immediately change California law.
“Californians have this idea that when they hear the news, that this is going to change overnight. This isn’t,” Travis said. “No matter what happens either way with the decision nothing’s going to change for the foreseeable future. And when I say that, I mean for years.”
Travis said the decision will be appealed to the 9th Circuit Superior Court and from there, potentially, all the way up to the Supreme Court.
If Benitez does overturn the assault weapons ban, it would not be his first time. He struck down the law in 2021. However, a higher court reinstated the law.
But Travis says this time is different. The decision would be the first to come after the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision last year that overturned a New York gun control law and made it easier to argue laws restricting guns are unconstitutional.
Travis said that ruling gives gun rights groups a better chance of actually overturning California’s assault weapons ban.
“It forced you to have to go back to the original text, the history based off of that text, and what is common use at this time,” Travis said of the new standard set by the Bruen decision. “And those are the things that help set the standard of how a judge or judges, in case of a panel, have to review anything under the Second Amendment.”
While at least one federal judge has recently declared that so-called assault weapons aren’t protected by the Second Amendment because they’re “dangerous and unusual”, Benitez isn’t likely to follow suit. In his original decision overturning California’s ban in 2021, the judge proclaimed that the AR-15 and other modern sporting rifles are the “perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment” and fall under the Constitution’s protection, and the state of California’s supposed evidence to the contrary has been laughably bad; with the state pointing to clearly unconstitutional statutes barring Catholics, slaves, and other historically disfavored groups from exercising their Second Amendment rights as proof that the Constitution allows for the most commonly-sold rifle in the country to be banned outright.
Benitez’s original decision was a thing of beauty, and I’m looking forward to reading what he has to say for a sequel, even if his decision is also likely to be stayed by the Ninth Circuit on appeal. The anti-gun judges on the appellate court may be intent on slow-walking this case, but it’s not the only lawsuit dealing with bans on so-called assault weapons percolating in federal courts, and fans of the gun ban won’t be able to keep this issue away from SCOTUS for long. Sooner or later the Court will have the chance to weigh in, and unless a majority of justices are willing to undo what SCOTUS has previously said about the scope of the Second Amendment in the Heller, McDonald, Caetano, and Bruen decisions I don’t see how these prohibitions can stand when the Court gets ahold of an “assault weapons” ban challenge.