In the June 2021 case of Miller v. Bonta, the United States District Court for the Southern District of California held that California statutes which restrict the use of assault weapons violate the Second Amendment. However, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently stayed the lower court’s ruling pending appeal proceedings. Thus, the State’s assault weapons laws remain in effect.
The Second Amendment provides: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” U.S. Const. amend. II. This right is incorporated against the states under the Fourteenth Amendment.
Writing for the District Court, Judge Robert T. Benitez observed that California’s Assault Weapons Control Act (“AWCA”) was enacted in 1989 due to concerns expressed by the Legislature that an “assault” weapon “has such a high rate of fire and capacity for firepower that its function as a legitimate sports or recreational firearm is substantially outweighed by the danger that it can be used to kill and injure human beings.” AWCA banned “assault” weapons by specific makes and models. In 2000, the AWCA was amended to add certain prohibited features to its definition of assault weapons (now codified at Penal Code section 30515(a)).
Plaintiffs challenged the constitutionality of Penal Code sections 30515(a)(1) through (8) (defining an “assault weapon” by prohibited features), 30800 (deeming certain “assault weapons” a public nuisance), 30915 (regulating “assault weapons” obtained by bequest or inheritance), 30925 (restricting importation of “assault weapons” by new residents), 30945 (restricting use of registered “assault weapons”), and 30950 (prohibiting possession of “assault weapons” by minors).
Citing District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008), Judge Benitez stated that the Second Amendment “elevates above all other interests the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms in defense of hearth and home.” Id., 554 U.S., at 635. Judge Benitez noted that in Caetano v. Massachusetts, 577 U.S. 411 (2016), the Supreme Court expressed that, under Heller, the Second Amendment extends at the very least to common modern arms useful for self-defense in the home, and that Second Amendment protection includes both common arms and weapons that may also be useful in warfare. Caetano, 577 U.S., at 412 (quoting Heller, 554 U.S., at 582, 624-25) (2016).
In reference to the AWCA, Judge Benitez explained that the Heller test asks whether the law bans a firearm that is commonly owned by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes? Judge Benitez stated that “the overwhelming majority of citizens who own and keep the popular AR-15 rifle and its many variants do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense at home. Under Heller, that is all that is needed.” Judge Benitez determined that “the firearms deemed ‘assault weapons’ by California are fairly ordinary, popular, modern rifles,” and concluded that under Heller, the California assault weapon ban is unconstitutional. Judge Benitez also found that under the Ninth Circuit’s own two-step level-of-scrutiny test there was no reasonable fit between the ban and California policy. Judge Benitez also determined that because the AR-15 is a “weapon of light warfare that is commonly owned, commonly trained, with common characteristics, and common interchangeable parts, [the firearm] is protected for militia use by the Second Amendment.”
Judge Benitez therefore enjoined the enforcement of the aforementioned California Penal Code assault weapons statutes and the penalty provisions Sections 30600, 30605 and 30800, as applied to “assault weapons” defined in Code sections 30515(a)(1) through (8).
Ninth Circuit’s Stay of the District Court Order
The State appealed the District Court’s decision. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of the District Court’s order and judgment pending appeal. Thus, the assault weapons laws in California remain in effect as before.
HOW THIS AFFECTS YOUR AGENCY
Despite the Southern District’s order, agencies should be aware that the assault weapons laws remain in effect and may be enforced due to the Ninth Circuit’s stay of the lower court’s decision. After the case winds its way through the appellate process, we will ultimately have a decision on this issue of statewide importance. In the meantime, the law remains as it has been since the enactment of the AWCA.
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