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A federal judge rules again that California's assault weapons ban is unconstitutional

SAN DIEGO — A federal judge who previously overturned California's three-decade-old ban on assault weapons did it again on Thursday, ruling that the state's attempts to prohibit sales of semiautomatic guns violates the constitutional right to bear arms.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego conceded that powerful weapons like AR-15 rifles are commonly used by criminals, but said the guns are importantly also owned by people who obey the law and feel they need firearms to protect themselves.

"The State of California posits that its 'assault weapon' ban, the law challenged here, promotes an important public interest of disarming some mass shooters even though it makes criminals of law-abiding residents who insist on acquiring these firearms for self-defense," Benitez wrote. "Nevertheless, more than that is required to uphold a ban."

The judge's ruling is nearly identical to a 2021 decision in which he called California's ban on assault weapons a "failed experiment." Benitez has repeatedly struck down multiple California firearms laws. Just last month, he ruled the state cannot ban gun owners from having detachable magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.

Benitez's latest decision would overturn multiple state statutes related to assault weapons. The judge gave the state 10 days to seek a stay on the ruling as part of an appeal to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta said his office had already filed a notice of appeal.

"Weapons of war have no place on California's streets," Bonta said in a statement Thursday. "This has been state law in California for decades, and we will continue to fight for our authority to keep our citizens safe from firearms that cause mass casualties. In the meantime, assault weapons remain unlawful for purchase, transfer, or possession in California."

John Dillon, an attorney for the plaintiffs who sued to overturn the law, cheered the judge's ruling.

"The Court's decision is constitutionally sound and addresses the many inadequacies of the State's arguments and so-called justifications for this unconstitutional ban," Dillon said in a statement Thursday. "We will continue to fight for our Plaintiffs' Second Amendment rights through any appeal until the State is forced to start respecting these rights."

Bonta had appealed the judge's 2021 ruling but before the 9th Circuit could decide the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in a New York case that set a new standard for how courts should consider gun restrictions. The 9th Circuit vacated Benitez's previous decision and sent the case back to him to reconsider under the new standard.

Benitez again concluded the ban was unconstitutional. And he returned to an analogy he made previously, comparing the AR-15 to Bowie knives.

"Like the Bowie Knife which was commonly carried by citizens and soldiers in the 1800s, 'assault weapons' are dangerous, but useful. But unlike the Bowie Knife, the United States Supreme Court has said, '(t)here is a long tradition of widespread lawful gun ownership by private individuals in this country,'" Benitez wrote.

California first restricted assault weapons in 1989, with multiple updates to the law since then.

Assault weapons as defined by the law are more dangerous than other firearms and are disproportionately used in crimes, mass shootings and against law enforcement, with more resulting casualties, the state attorney general's office argued in 2021, and barring them "furthers the state's important public safety interests."

The lawsuit filed by the San Diego County Gun Owners Political Action Committee, California Gun Rights Foundation, Second Amendment Foundation and Firearms Policy Coalition is among several by gun advocacy groups challenging California's firearms laws, which are among the strictest in the nation.

It was filed on behalf of gun owners who want to use high-capacity magazines in their legal rifles or pistols, but said they can't because doing so would turn them into illegal assault weapons under California law. Unlike military weapons, the semi-automatic rifles fire one bullet each time the trigger is pulled, and the plaintiffs say they are legal in 41 states.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press