California AR-15 Ban Overturned

On Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Roger Benitez ruled that the State of California’s ban on “assault weapons,” which dates to 1989 and basically refers to AR-15 style modern rifles, is unconstitutional. Benitez’s ruling was clearly correct under controlling Supreme Court precedent, in my opinion.

Under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), as Benitez wrote, “the Second Amendment protects guns commonly owned by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” Semi-automatic rifles based on the AR-15 platform obviously meet that test. Judge Benitez’s opinion is unusually well-informed and bears reading in its entirety.

While semi-automatic rifles are highly useful for self-defense–the opinion documents a number of such cases–the idea that they play a particularly large role in violent crime is ridiculous, as Judge Benitez writes:

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.

Tellingly, Judge Benitez documents the fact that California’s legislature in 1989 failed even to consider the utility of semi-automatic rifles in self-defense, the core purpose of the Second Amendment. California’s anti-AR-15 statute was a relic of an earlier, and more benighted, era of constitutional jurisprudence.

While Judge Benitez’s opinion did not come as a surprise to anyone who has followed legal developments in this field, it nevertheless prompted howls of execration from the Left. Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statement:

The governor of California, Gavin Newsom, slammed a federal judge’s decision to overturn his state’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons as “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians”.

In a strongly worded attack, the Democrat added: “Comparing an AR-15 to a Swiss army knife is a disgusting slap in the face to those who have lost loved ones to gun violence.”

Newsom referred to the first sentence of Judge Benitez’s opinion, which noted the versatility of the AR-15 platform: “Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.” I doubt that Newsom read much farther than that. He should have. He might have learned something from Judge Benitez’s 94-page opinion.

These days, Democrats demand that Republican Supreme Court nominees pledge loyalty to the doctrine of stare decisis, interpreting that concept to mean that no precedent should ever be overruled. They are thinking of Roe v. Wade. On the other hand, they are perfectly happy to see precedents that don’t suit their agenda overturned. Like, say, Bowers v. Hardwick.

But that is not what we are dealing with here. District Court judges like Roger Benitez are bound to follow precedents from the Supreme Court and their own Court of Appeals whether they agree with them or not. The relevant issue here is whether Judge Benitez correctly applied the principles that have been laid down by the Supreme Court in Heller and other cases. In my opinion, he plainly did.

But the liberals don’t care about such elementary legal rules. They evidently wanted Benitez to disregard existing law and, instead, rule consistent with their own policy preferences. To anyone who cares about the rule of law, this is an outrage. But I am afraid the Democrats have been spoiled by a number of their own appointees who have been willing to do exactly that.

President Biden, or whoever is governing in his name, will likely have the opportunity to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice. If that day comes, I hope Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee will demand that Biden’s nominee pledge to adhere to the sacred doctrine of stare decisis by upholding the Court’s existing Second Amendment jurisprudence.