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In a historic decision, a federal district judge has struck down California’s three-decade-plus ban on “assault” weapons, stating that civilians have a constitutional right to own an AR-15 rifle.
U.S. District Court judge Roger T. Benitez ruled that the state’s prohibition on what it has categorized as “illegal military-style rifles” deprives law-abiding California residents of their Second Amendment right to bear arms. He referred to California’s ban on the AR-15, a weapon that residents in most other states are allowed to use, as a “failed experiment.”
In his 94-page opinion, he 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. 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.”
California Attorney General Rob Bonta said his office will appeal the decision, while Gov. Gavin Newsom lashed out in anger at the ruling, saying,
“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.”
Critics pushed back on Newsom’s claim that the AR-15 is a “weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield,” noting many California liberals see pictures of scary-looking guns being blamed by the news media for mass shootings and assume that they are in fact combat weapons. However, the charge that the AR-15 is being used by the U.S. military on the battlefield simply isn’t true.
The AR-15 may resemble an M4 or M16, but it is not a weapon that is used in combat by the military, largely because, despite what politicians like Newsom may claim, the AR-15 is not an automatic weapon but a semi-automatic one. As legal scholar and professor Jonathan Turley wrote,
“While a ban on AR-15s sounds compelling, it breaks down under closer review. The AR-15 and other weapons in its class use an intermediate cartridge that actually is less powerful than that used in a rifle. These weapons are often twice as powerful as a handgun but not nearly as powerful as a rifle. Moreover, guns like the AR-15 are popular because they are modular and allow for different grips and barrels.”
Not only did Newsom make a false claim about the AR-15, but he may also have failed to read beyond the first paragraph of Benitez’s ruling, who went on to write:
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. Federal Bureau of Investigation murder statistics do not track assault rifles, but they do show that killing by knife attack is far more common than murder by any kind of rifle. In California, murder by knife occurs seven times more often than murder by rifle. For example, according to F.B.I. statistics for 2019, California saw 252 people murdered with a knife, while 34 people were killed with some type of rifle — not necessarily an AR-15. A Californian is three times more likely to be murdered by an attacker’s bare hands, fists, or feet, than by his rifle. In 2018, the statistics were even more lopsided as California saw only 24 murders by some type of rifle. The same pattern can be observed across the nation.
Benitez rightly applied the Heller test to the AR-15 and found that it is a commonly owned weapon that is clearly not primarily used in a military context, which means that owning an AR-15 is protected by the Constitution. This judge recognized that facts about a weapon matter more than its appearance.
Terms like “assault weapon” are meant to obfuscate the debate by painting a picture of rifles as monstrous war machines that are responsible for countless deaths. In reality, the term means nothing, as Benitez explained. “Plaintiffs challenge a net of interlocking statutes which impose strict criminal restrictions on firearms that fall under California’s complex definition of the ignominious ‘assault weapon,’” he wrote.
Rifles are rarely ever used in shootings and no weapon used is responsible for the crime its user commits.
Benitez should be congratulated for seeing through California’s façade of promoting “safety” through deception and denying citizens their constitutional rights.