California AG appeals judge’s ruling overturning assault weapons ban

California’s attorney general has filed an appeal challenging a judge’s decision to strike down California’s assault weapons ban, calling last week’s ruling “unconstitutional.”

In his decision to overturn the decades-old ban, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez described the AR-15 rifle as “good for both home and battle.”

“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” Benitez wrote in his opinion last Friday.

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At a Thursday news conference in front of a facility known for treating gunshot victims, Attorney General Rob Bonta condemned the ruling.

“I think we can agree that the decision was disappointing, and the reasoning, such as equating assault weapons to Swiss Army knives and false claims that Covid-19 vaccines have killed more people than mass shootings, was shocking,” he said alongside Gov. Gavin Newsom and other Democratic officials, gun control advocates and a trauma surgeon.

Bonta also urged The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to keep the ban in effect as it considers the case.

The language Benitez employed in striking down a gun control law crafted in response to a 1989 shooting at a Stockton elementary school drew widespread condemnation.

“It shows a really flippant disregard for how dangerous these weapons are and also how dangerous his vision for the Second Amendment will be,” said Ari Freilich, California policy director for the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

It’s not the first time that Benitez made headlines with fiery language in an opinion striking down a California gun control law. He’s well-known for siding with gun rights advocates and for writing opinions with memorable phrases, such as writing that, in California, “the Second Amendment gets even less respect” than Rodney Dangerfield.

Born in Havana, Cuba, in 1950, Benitez was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California by President George W. Bush in 2003. Prior to being a federal judge, Benitez served as a judge in the Superior Court of Imperial County.

In the spring of 2019, while striking down California’s ban on high-capacity firearm magazines, Benitez wrote that the Second Amendment was drafted by “colonists who cherished individual freedom more than the subservient security of a British ruler.”

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld Benitez’s decision.

In the spring of 2020, Benitez issued an injunction against California’s ammunition background check, writing in his opinion that “the experiment has been tried. The casualties have been counted. California’s new ammunition background check law misfires and the Second Amendment rights of California citizens have been gravely injured,” according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In his latest opinion on a California gun law, Benitez wrote that the ban on assault weapons is misnamed, meaning he believes the AR-15 is not a military-style rifle.

“This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes,” Benitez wrote.

He further wrote that assault weapons “could just as well be called ‘home defense rifles’ or ‘anti-crime guns.’”

On the other hand, he wrote that “modern rifles” played important roles in overthrowing governments, citing the armed revolt Fidel Castro led in Cuba, Vietnamese revolutionary Ho Chi Minh and more recent fighting by the Taliban and and Iraqi insurgents in U.S.-led wars.

“It has been argued that citizens with nothing more than modern rifles will have no chance against an army with tanks and missiles. ... Citizen militias are not irrelevant,” he wrote.

Benitez further wrote that “modern rifles” are incredibly common, with more of them in circulation than there are Ford F-150 pickups.

“After handguns, modern rifles are probably the most popular firearms in America. They are quietly owned by millions of law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes ranging from home defense to sporting competitions. Yet, California has banned, and continues to ban, these popular rifles,” Benitez wrote.

Benitez said that despite a ban on assault weapons, California continued to see mass shootings.

“The assault weapon ban has had no effect. California’s experiment is a failure,” he wrote.

Benitez wrote of several instances in which people defended themselves from home invaders with the use of an assault weapon, then compared that to the number of times an assault weapon has been used in mass shootings.

“It begs the question, are the lives of home invasion victims worth less than the lives of mass shooting victims?” Benitez wrote.

ArLuther Lee contributed to this report for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.