A Federal Judge Overturned California’s Assault Weapons Ban—and Likened AR-15s to Swiss Army Knives

AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.A federal judge overturned California’s three-decade-old ban on assault weapons Friday—and, in his ruling, compared AR-15s to a Swiss army knife, “a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”
California had previously banned assault weapons since 1989. The law was challenged in a 2019 lawsuit by California resident James Miller and a political action committee called the San Diego County Gun Owners.
Despite California’s ban on assault rifles, they’ve been accessible in other parts of the country and have risen in popularity. Judge Roger T. Benitez, a Bush-era appointee in the US District Court for the Southern District of California, tried to use that as a partial justification for his order, writing that weapons banned by California’s law were not “bazookas, howitzers or machine guns,” but “fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles.”
“This case is about what should be a muscular constitutional right and whether a state can force a gun policy choice that impinges on that right with a 30-year-old failed experiment,” Benitez wrote. California consistently ranks among the states with the lowest rates of gun deaths.
Benitez said that he has granted a 30-day stay of the ruling, giving California Attorney General Rob Bonta time to appeal. “Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed,” Bonta said in a news release, “and we will be appealing it.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom also criticized Benitez’s ruling, calling it a “disgusting slap” in the face of those affected by gun violence and “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians.”
“The fact that this judge compared the AR-15—a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield—to a Swiss army knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision,” Newsom said in a statement.
California first banned assault rifles just months after a shooting at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, California, in which a gunman shot and killed five children and wounded dozens of others. Since then, AR-15–style rifles have been used in other mass shootings, including the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut, in which Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children.