June 7, 2021

On June 4, 2021, Judge Roger Benitez issued a Decision declaring California’s “interlocking statutes” and “complex definition of the ignominious ‘assault weapon’” unconstitutional under the Second Amendment; and he issued a permanent injunction prohibiting enforcement of that law.  However, he also issued a temporary stay of his Order for 30 days giving the State time to appeal and seek a permanent stay from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.  Thus, Californians are going to need to wait at least another 30 days to exercise the freedom of owning modern sporting rifles most Americans already enjoy.

Judge Benitez held a full trial on the merits to determine whether California’s Assault Weapons Control Act (“AWCA”) was constitutional.  14,000 pages of evidence and testimony was submitted and reviewed by the Court. Judge Benitez found that the type of firearms banned by the AWCA were commonly used by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes, such as self-defense, and such firearms are protected under the Second Amendment pursuant to the Supreme Court’s Heller decision. The Court found that the types of firearms banned in California were not “bazookas, howitzers, or machineguns,” but “fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.” He acknowledged that these “modern rifles” are not the rifles made famous by John Wayne and The Rifleman, but still, they are “immensely popular in the United States,” make up nearly 50% of all rifles sold in the U.S., and their intended uses were evenly split between hunting, target practice and personal/home defense. The Court found that most of the banned “assault weapons” were commonly held by law-abiding citizens; and even for those that were not (AK style, AR pistols, etc…), there was very little evidence that those were used unlawfully in California.

The trial also addressed California’s claimed rationale for passing the law to enhance public safety.  During a thorough review of the legislative history of the AWCA, and its “prohibited-features amendment,” Judge Benitez noted that California’s Attorney General had not identified any legislative or evidentiary support of societal dangers associated with “pistol grips, flash hiders, telescoping stocks, flare launchers or barrel shrouds.” The Court found that the prohibited features do not change an AR-15 rifle from “a benign weapon into an ‘incredibly effective killing machine’” as suggested by the State. While the State’s interest in reducing crime is very important, a law restricting a constitutional right must also be a “reasonable fit” to achieve the objective. He found that modern sporting rifles are not “disproportionately used in crime.” In fact, Judge Benitez cited to a 2004 study which found that “assault weapons” are used in only a small fraction of gun crimes. Further, he found little evidence supporting California’s “driving force” behind the prohibition, that “assault weapons” are the weapons of choice by perpetrators of mass shootings. Of the 161 “national events” identified by the State’s expert, only 22% involved an “assault weapon,” and others found that percentage to be 8%. Judge Benitez characterized the AWCA as California’s “failed experiment” to reduce gun crime, noting the academia’s analysis of the effects of the 10-year federal and various state “assault weapons” bans are not clear, and are mixed at best. 

Ultimately, Judge Benitez found there can be no question that these types of firearms are in common use, and “under no level of heightened scrutiny can the law survive.” The Second Amendment’s core right was for a “law-abiding citizen to defend hearth and home.”  The Court found that the AWCA’s complete ban, including use to defend one’s home, was a direct burden on this core right, and therefore, unconstitutional using either a strict scrutiny or intermediate scrutiny analysis.  He found the AWCA lacks a reasonable fit to the stated goal of reducing gun violence, and the evidence suggests it “has made no difference at all.” Judge Benitez concluded by stating “the Bill of Rights is not a list of suggestions or guidelines for social balancing. The Bill of Rights prevents the tyranny of the majority from taking away the rights of a minority.”  Let’s hope the Ninth Circuit gives Judge Benitez’s opinion a fair review and upholds his well-reasoned and thoughtful analysis.

Renzulli Law Firm, LLP is continuing to monitor gun control legislation and significant court decisions.  If you have any questions regarding gun control laws, please contact John F. Renzulli or Christopher Renzulli.