California appeals court decision to overturn longstanding assault weapons ban

Thursday's appeal marks the next step of a legal battle that could eventually land in the Supreme Court.

California appeals court decision to overturn longstanding assault weapons ban

SAN FRANCISCO — The state has formally appealed last week’s court ruling that overturned California’s longstanding ban on assault weapons, marking the next step in a legal battle that could eventually reach the Supreme Court.

Speaking from a news conference at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center alongside the governor and mayor, Attorney General Rob Bonta referenced last month’s mass shooting at a San Jose rail yard that left nine dead as evidence that “no one law” can stop mass shootings — but pledged to fight the controversial ruling nonetheless. His appeal is now on file in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

“In many ways the opinion was disturbing and troubling,” Bonta said, “but we cannot be, and we are not, deterred by this ruling.”

On Friday, which was National Gun Violence Awareness Day, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego ruled that the state’s 32-year ban on military-style rifles is unconstitutional and prevents Californians from using weapons allowed in most states.

The judge issued a permanent injunction against enforcement of the law, but stayed his own ruling for 30 days to give Bonta time to appeal. Bonta will in turn ask the Ninth Circuit to stay his appeal so that California’s current ban on assault weapons remains in effect while the case makes its way through the court system, he said Thursday.

Benitez’s ruling spawned immediate backlash not only for its potential impact, but also its framing of assault weapons as garden-variety self-defense tools and an opening line that likened an AR-15 rifle to a Swiss Army knife.

It was that comparison that prompted Dr. Andre Campbell, a trauma surgeon at SF General, to pull out a pocket knife during Thursday’s press conference and hold it up to the light. The damage assault weapons like AR-15s cause to human bodies, he said, is akin to “a bomb going off.”

“This is not a weapon of mass destruction,” he added, of the pocket knife.

Gov. Gavin Newsom likewise railed against Benitez as a “wholly owned subsidiary” of the gun lobby whose decisions could be ripped from the opinion pages of a gun magazine.

California is already appealing two other cases stemming from Benitez’s decisions regarding the state’s restrictions on firearms. In 2017, the judge ruled against the state’s longstanding ban on high-capacity magazines holding more than 10 bullets; last spring, he blocked a new law requiring background checks for anyone buying ammunition.

In accusing gun lobbyists of funneling cases through Benitez, the governor alluded to an obscure rule that allows cases with similar legal questions to be given to the same judge. In San Diego, however, there is no process to challenge those assignments, according to gun experts.

“We need to call this judge out,” Newsom said.

When asked to assess how effective the state’s restrictions have been in preventing gun violence — given that shooters behind recent massacres in Gilroy, San Bernardino and San Jose have sometimes used pistols as well as assault weapons — officials said that they’re hamstrung in completely preventing shootings given that people are able to purchase banned weapons in other states and bring them back to California. .

“There is no panacea for gun violence,” said Robyn Thomas, executive director of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. “We’re going to continue to have some problems until we have comprehensive gun reform — and what California’s doing in the interim is our best to fill the gaps, knowing there’s only so much we can do.”

Still, Thomas said, California has the seventh-lowest rate of gun violence in the country,

On a practical level, Benitez’s ruling has raised alarms for gun control advocates who fear that the case could make its way to the Supreme Court, with its conservative majority, in the coming months. Now that Bonta has filed his appeal, a three-judge panel with the Ninth Circuit will review the case; their decision could be appealed first to a larger panel of judges and ultimately to the highest court.

When asked about the case’s possible trajectory, however, the attorney general demurred.

“The next step is filing our appeal, which we did, and filing our motion to stay, which we’re filing today — and putting our best foot forward and making our best case,” Bonta said.