The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has blocked a federal judge’s ruling overturning California’s longtime ban on assault weapons, in which he likened an AR-15 to a Swiss army knife.
A three-judge panel in a one-page order on Monday issued a stay of the June 4 order from U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez of the Southern District of California, in which the judge ruled that sections of the state ban in place since 1989 regarding military-style rifles are unconstitutional.
Senior Circuit Court Judge Barry G. Silverman, Circuit Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen and Circuit Judge Ryan D. Nelson wrote that the stay will remain in place pending the outcome of another case challenging the ban.
“The stay shall remain in effect until further order of this court,” the panel wrote.
The 9th Circuit panel said parties will file a status update within 14 days of a decision in the other case, Rupp v. Bonta.
California Attorney General Rob Bonta, D, to whom Benitez granted a 30-day stay of the ruling earlier this month, celebrated the 9th Circuit’s order after criticizing the judge’s decision as “fundamentally flawed.”
“This leaves our assault-weapons laws in effect while appellate proceedings continue,” Bonta tweeted. “We won’t stop defending these lifesaving laws.”
Representatives for Gov. Gavin Newsom, D, and John Dillon, an attorney with the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.
The decision by Benitez, an appointee of President George W. Bush, gained nationwide attention when he called the state’s ban a “failed experiment” and said the assault weapons that Californians are barred from using are not “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns” but rather “fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.” But it was his comparison of an AR-15 to a Swiss army knife that received the most attention.
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez said in the 94-page ruling.
The 9th Circuit’s stay comes after weeks of condemnation from Democrats and gun-control advocates who slammed Benitez’s ruling as a “disgusting slap in the face to those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.” Others, such as Brandon Combs, head of the Firearms Policy Coalition, which helped bring the lawsuit to court, called overturning California’s assault weapons ban a “historic victory for individual liberty.”
The California ban has been revised multiple times over the past three decades. The state has argued that assault weapons restrictions have also previously been upheld by several federal district and appeals courts.
Benitez’s decision this month stemmed from a lawsuit against California that said the state is “one of only a small handful of 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” that are frequently used with detachable ammunition magazines.
The state previously argued in a court filing that a spike in sales in the past year of nearly 1.2 million other types of pistols, rifles and shotguns showed that California’s ban “has not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense.” Benitez pushed back on that notion, saying in his ruling that there are an estimated 185,569 assault weapons registered with the state.
“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” Benitez 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.”
The AR-15, a lightweight, customizable version of the military’s M-16, soared in popularity after a 10-year federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004. It has also been slammed by lawmakers and gun-control advocates for its use in mass shootings.
Benitez baselessly claimed in his June 4 ruling that “more people have died from the COVID-19 vaccine than mass shootings in California.” He made another reference to knives in his ruling, claiming that “murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle” in California.
Legal experts told The Washington Post this month that the judge’s ruling, which compares assault weapons to knives in the first three pages, is similar to language used by gun-rights advocates in arguing for the popularity of the firearms in the United States.
“When I read something like this — ‘What about knives?’ — my instinct is to say that the Las Vegas shooter didn’t use knives to rain down fire on a concert,” Darrell A.H. Miller, a law professor and co-director of Duke University’s Center for Firearms Law, told The Post.
Benitez has ruled in favor of gun rights multiple times since he was confirmed by the Senate in 2004. He previously ruled that California’s ban on high-capacity magazines was unconstitutional and struck down a restriction on remote purchases of gun ammunition. The state is appealing both of those decisions.
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