State Attorney General Rob Bonta and Governor Gavin Newsom announced on Thursday that California is appealing the June 4th District Court decision Miller v. Bonta that ruled that the state’s 32-year-old assault weapons ban was unconstitutional.
An assault weapon ban has been in place in California since 1989 when the state legislature passed the Roberti-Roos Assault Weapons Control Act (AWCA), which banned the ownership and transfer of assault weapons. The law, which was created partly due to the Stockton schoolyard shooting in 1989, had even been signed into law by then Republican Governor George Deukmejian. An amendment added in 2000 gave a broader definition of assault weapons in order to stop guns that look similar to assault weapons from entering the state.
However, a changing Supreme Court bench, currently tilted towards conservatives due to Justice Amy Coney Barrett replacing former Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg late last year, with the Court now more willing to hear gun control cases, has emboldened many states and groups to bring up gun law changes in court.
On June 4th, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California Judge Roger Benitez ruled that California’s assault weapon ban violates the Second Amendment, as Californians can not own the same types of firearms allowed in most other states.
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” said Benitez in his opinion last week. “Good for both home and battle, the AR-15 is the kind of versatile gun that lies at the intersection of the kinds of firearms protected under District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008) and United States v Miller, 307 U.S. 174 (1939). Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR-15 type rifle. Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional.”
Benitez added a 30-day stay on his injunction to give California time in conforming to the ruling and to give time for an appeal to be formed.
Bonta, Newsom, Lawmakers speak out against District Court ruling
Governor Newsom and other lawmakers immediately spoke out against the decision, vowing to appeal the ruling and noting that the removal of the ban would only further increase gun violence in the state.
Bonta and Newsom formulated an appeal less than a week after the ruling, announcing on Thursday that they would not only be appealing the Miller v. Bonta ruling, but would ask the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to indefinitely extend the 30-day-stay of making assault-style weapons legal again in California until after an appellate ruling.
“Equating firearms that have been used in many of the deadliest mass shootings in this country with Swiss Army knives has no basis in law or fact,” Attorney General Bonta said during a press conference with Governor Newsom in Sacramento on Thursday. “The ban on assault weapons will not put an end to all gun violence, but it is one important tool the state has to protect the safety of Californians while also respecting the rights of law-abiding residents who choose to possess firearms. We have appealed the district court’s ruling and will continue our defense of the state’s commonsense gun laws.”
Newsom also spoke during the press conference on Thursday, specifically noting the incident that helped spark the laws creation in 1989.
“California’s assault weapons ban has saved lives, and we refuse to let these weapons of war back onto our streets,” added Governor Newsom. “This ban was enacted after a shooting that took the lives of five schoolchildren and injured countless more, and my administration will do whatever it takes to continue protecting Californians and leading the nation in gun safety laws. This is a fight California will never back down from, period.”
Many legislative members also noted their support on Thursday for the appeal.
“For three decades, assault weapons have been banned in the state of California because of the danger they inflict on our communities,” said Assemblyman Mike A. Gipson (D-Carson) in a statement on Thursday. “This ban has outlasted the Federal Government’s ban on the same weapons, and we cannot deal with another mass shooting. The decision in Miller v. Bonta is fundamentally flawed, and I believe the Attorney General’s office will continue the state’s defense of our commonsense gun laws.”
Many rush to defend District Court ruling in higher courts
However, many supporters of the Miller v. Bonta District Court ruling noted on Thursday that they would fight to keep the ruling in place, as they had been waiting nearly a third of a century for the assault weapon law to change.
“We’ll aggressively litigate this case on appeal and will take every action to defend the Court’s legally- and historically-correct decision up to and at the U.S. Supreme Court,” the Firearms Policy Coalition, who helped bring the Miller case to court, said on Thursday.
Legal experts note that while the state may possibly overturn the ruling at the Appellate level, they would also likely face a now conservative bending Supreme Court who has now begun to hear more gun control cases than past courts have.
“There’s a lot of risk for the state here,” California lawyer Ronnie Stein, who has been a part of past cases involving firearms, told the Globe on Thursday. “Even if they manage to win the appeal, the Supreme Court would more than likely at least consider taking the case due to it being largely un-chartered territory and being tied to other states laws. One of their largest cases this year is New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Corlett, a major gun control case from New York of all states that challenges strict licensing for weapons. The Supreme Court is expected to overturn it.
“So if they are willing to hear and act on cases from New York, it’s a fair bet they’ll also hear California.”
“Firearm proponents have one of the best contingency plans right now. No wonder Bonta and the others have been furious.”
Miller v. Bonta is expected to be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later this year.