The California Assault Weapon Ban Legal Battle: Appeals Court Puts Overturn Of Ban On Hold

June 22, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

On Monday, June 21, a federal appeals court decided to put a judge’s decision to overturn California’s 30-year-old ban on assaults weapons on hold. However, the legal battle is expected to continue for months and could eventually end up being decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay on U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez’s June 4 decision in a brief order, The Los Angeles Times reported.

The 9th Circuit Court was acting on an appeal filed by Attorney General Rob Bonta on June 10. It said the case had been put on hold pending decisions in other gun cases that are now before the court. That means the current ban on assault weapons in California will continue to be in effect while appellate proceedings press on, Bonta said in a tweet.

The 9th Circuit order said the law would remain in effect until it ruled in another case that also challenged California’s assault weapon regulations claiming it violates the Second Amendment. That case, in turn, has been put on hold pending a ruling in a lawsuit over California’s ban on large-capacity magazines. An 11-judge 9th Circuit “en banc” panel is scheduled to hear arguments in that case today, and the ruling is likely to determine the future of the state’s assault weapons ban. 

On June 4, Benitez ruled that he state’s definition of illegal military-style rifles unlawfully deprives law-abiding Californians of weapons commonly allowed in most other states and by the Supreme Court. In his introduction to the ruling, 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.” Governor Gavin Newsom, who condemned the decision after it came out, said the Swiss Army knife comparison “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,” Associated Press reported on June 6.

Benitez also was the judge who struck down the voter-approved 2016 ban on large-capacity magazines (i.e., those that can hold more than 10 bullets). A three-judge 9th Circuit panel upheld his 2017 decision on that matter, but the state successfully sought review by a larger en banc panel. Gov. Gavin Newsom authored the ballot measure banning the magazines when he was the state’s lieutenant governor, the Los Angeles Times report says. The state also is appealing Benitez’s decision in April 2020 to block a 2019 California law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.

California’s firearms laws are said to be among the strictest in the nation. The state is one of seven, and Washington D.C., that ban assault weapons. Twenty-two states, led by Arizona, which is under the 9th Circuit’s jurisdiction, asked the appeals court to uphold the order against California’s law: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

The Firearms Policy Coalition criticized the 9th Circuit’s decision saying: “The Ninth Circuit put Judge Benitez’s incredibly detailed, historically accurate, and legally sound decision and judgment—and your rights—on ice.” After Benitez’s June 4 ruling that issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law (staying it for 30 days to give Bonta time to appeal), a gun control advocacy group had termed his ruling alarming. “Too many families across the nation have lost loved ones in shootings carried out with assault weapons. They can attest to the reality that these weapons are not like ‘Swiss Army knives’ nor are mass shootings only a ‘very small’ problem,” Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence said, according to Associated Press.

What exactly does the law say?

Cal. Pen. Code § 30600 regulates the manufacture and transfer of two kinds of firearms: those that are classified as assault weapons and a specific type of rifle, the .50 Browning Machine Gun. The law in this section states: “Any person who, within this state, manufactures or causes to be manufactured, distributes, transports, or imports into the state, keeps for sale, or offers or exposes for sale, or who gives or lends any assault weapon or any .50 BMG rifle, except as provided by this chapter, is guilty of a felony, and upon conviction shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 for four, six, or eight years.”

But it is Cal. Pen. Code § 30605 that specifically deals with assault weapons. It states: “(a) Any person who, within this state, possesses any assault weapon, except as provided in this chapter, shall be punished by imprisonment in a county jail for a period not exceeding one year, or by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170. (b) Notwithstanding subdivision (a), a first violation of these provisions is punishable by a fine not exceeding five hundred dollars ($500) if the person was found in possession of no more than two firearms in compliance with Section 30945 and the person meets all of the following conditions.” (You can find the full list of conditions through the link in the section cited above.)

How does the law define an assault weapon? It is mainly based on how the weapon is configured and can have several characteristics. Assault weapons can include, but are not limited to, semi-automatic rifles, firearms that are compatible with various attachments like flash suppressors, folding/telescoping stocks, or grenade launchers, and those that can be fixed with detachable magazines or have a fixed magazine that can hold over 10 rounds. The Penal Code itself also provides a non-exhaustive list of 70 specific weapons that are designated as assault rifles.

They are generally viewed as more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes and mass shootings, and against law enforcement, resulting in more casualties, the state attorney general’s office argued while appealing Benitez ruling. The state also said that the ban had not prevented law-abiding citizens in the state from acquiring a range of firearms for lawful purposes, including self-defense. That was evident from a surge in sales of more than 1.16 million other types of pistols, rifles and shotguns in the last year — more than a third of them to likely first-time buyers, it said in a court filing.

Meanwhile, in Texas, where a new law will allow residents over the age of 21 to carry handguns without a license or training from Sep. 1, both law enforcement officers and pawnshop owners are expressing concern over inexperienced gun owners.