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Federal Judge Throws Out California's Ban On Assault Weapons


A federal judge's recent ruling on gun control is an entertaining read. The first sentence by Judge Roger Benitez compares an assault rifle to a Swiss Army knife. Like that knife, he says, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. The judge threw out an assault weapons ban in the state of California. He said an assault weapon is a perfectly reasonable thing to have around the house, and many people do. So banning them violates the Constitution. California's attorney general disagrees and is appealing. Rob Bonta says California's law is tailored to ban only the most deadly weapons used in mass shootings.

What did you think about when you read the judge's ruling?

ROB BONTA: I was very concerned. Honestly, it hurt in a number of ways. A very problematic ruling, in my view, fundamentally flawed. The law on the facts when it comes to common sense, you know, filled with things like comparing an assault weapon to a Swiss Army knife, claiming without basis that more Californians have died from the COVID-19 vaccine - not COVID-19 but the COVID-19 vaccine - than from mass shootings. So a lot in there to create concern, worry. And it's out of touch. So it created a great deal of concern and, frankly, pain.

INSKEEP: Help me through the legal reasoning here. And tell me what legal reasoning your office will use in appealing this. Some people, laymen will know that the Supreme Court a number of years ago, in a case centered on Washington, D.C., threw out Washington's handgun ban, said that you could not ban people from owning weapons of a certain kind in Washington, D.C. It seems to me that this judge extends that protection to an AR-15, say, and says this is just an ordinary, common weapon, rather like a handgun. How do you push back in an environment where the Supreme Court has already said gun bans are something they're going to look upon with disfavor?

BONTA: Well, I'll push back on the claim in the lower court order that all AR-15s are being banned somehow. They're not. You can have a rimfire AR-15 with all the features. You can have a centerfire AR-15 that's futureless. And they be lawful. So you can still lawfully in California own a number of types of AR-15s.

INSKEEP: I'm sorry, Attorney General - would you explain for the laymen what rimfire and centerfire are and how they differ from things you ban?

BONTA: Yes, I mean, rimfire and centerfire are two types of primary ignition systems for ammunition cartridges. And it means it's the way that the firing pin strikes the rim of the cartridge that that sends the bullet out of the weapon. And generally, a centerfire approach has a higher caliber and is more powerful and more lethal. And a rimfire is - has a lower caliber weapon associated with it and is less powerful and less lethal. So it's a nuanced, thoughtful analysis in the law. And in my view, the lower court opinion does not capture that nuance and just blows right past it and says AR-15s are popular. They're more popular than a Ford truck. And therefore, they're constitutional. And I think the analysis needs to be much more nuanced than that.

INSKEEP: It sounds like that's going to be part of your argument - is that you've been stopped here by a bumper sticker, and you have a more complicated law that takes the constitutional concerns into account.

BONTA: Yes, and also that the D.C. v. Heller test, which is - has been applied here and basically reduced to a popularity test. You know, the D.C. Heller court - no other justice besides Justice Scalia has said that under the Second Amendment, machine guns are - can still be banned. Short-barrel shotguns can still be banned. And we think assault weapons can still be banned under that law. So our argument will be more complex and nuanced with our factual presentation, with our legal presentation when we go to the Ninth Circuit. And we hope for a reversal of the court decision below.

INSKEEP: Are we finding out, for better or worse, how tremendously limited this particular effort at gun control is? It has not prevented a very large number of people from owning assault weapons. And, of course, people can own any number of other kinds of guns.

BONTA: I think we're finding that the gun laws that we have in California are incredible and effective in saving untold numbers of lives and making Californians safer. But they're not perfect. And perfect should not be the standard. Because we have a mass shooting in San Jose does not mean that you throw out all of the gun laws, the common-sense gun laws that California has implemented that have saved lives and kept people safe for decades. If we can implement a law that is lawful, that is constitutional, that is common sense to save a life, we ought to. We should. We must. And our laws have done that, including our assault weapons ban.

And other states should be doing the same things California has done. If they had, we'd be safer. You know, the federal government should act, as well, renewing the assault weapons ban, putting a ban on high-capacity magazines, having universal background checks. All of those things would make us safer. California has led the way. We've showed what's possible. If other states and the federal government did what California is doing, we'd all be safer. We'd all be better off.

INSKEEP: Attorney General Bonta, thank you so much.

BONTA: Thanks, Mr. Inskeep. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.