California Gun Laws Reviled by NRA Face Pivotal Court Test

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California faces a pivotal test in its defense of gun-control laws that were struck down by a judge in San Diego, as the state squares off in court against firearms advocates.

The state on Tuesday will go before a panel of 11 appellate judges in San Francisco in an attempt to reinstate a ban on large-capacity magazines that U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez ruled was unconstitutional in 2019. In a separate case that won’t be argued today, Benitez ruled this month that the state’s long-standing ban on many types of semiautomatic assault weapons was also illegal.

“The laws saved untold numbers of lives and have been a model for the rest of the nation,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta said in an interview. “We’re going to keep marching forward and we won’t be deterred in our appeal of these cases, which have made Californians less safe.”

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to have the final say. With a 6-3 conservative majority, the high court has signaled a fresh interest in Second Amendment cases, even as the nation grapples with a seemingly endless string of deadly mass shooting. That could place California at the center of America’s ongoing cultural clash over gun control, though similar fights are brewing in other states.

California Gun Laws Reviled by NRA Face Pivotal Court Test

Tuesday’s hearing relates only to the ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition; in the other case, the appeals court late Monday temporarily paused the ruling against the assault weapons ban, meaning it will stay in effect while that case proceeds.

In the fight over large-capacity magazines, Benitez ruled California’s voter-approved ban violated the Second Amendment. The judge said many mass shootings in the state are carried out by people with smaller magazines who carry multiple weapons.

“Crime waves cannot be broken with warrantless searches and unreasonable seizures,” Benitez, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, wrote in his 2019 opinion. “Neither can the government response to a few mad men with guns and ammunition be a law that turns millions of responsible, law-abiding people trying to protect themselves into criminals.”

Benitez disregarded the state’s surveys showing large magazines made mass shootings worse, ruling they weren’t admissible because they were based on news articles and amounted to “double or triple hearsay.”

The plaintiffs got a boost last year when the largely Democratic-appointed Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed Benitez’s ruling saying the ban struck at the “core” of the Second Amendment. The 2-1 decision was praised by National Rifle Association, a vocal supporter of the California suits.

Micheal Jean, director the NRA’s Office of Litigation Counsel, said California has a history of passing laws that burden law-abiding gun owners “while doing nothing to benefit public safety.” He argues that magazine sizes should only be limited by customer demand -- not politicians.

California Gun Laws Reviled by NRA Face Pivotal Court Test

“This is a country that protects gun rights and has a free-market economy, so people get the magazines in the sizes that best suit them,” Jean said. “One only needs to look at what people are buying to see what the functioning limits on magazine capacity should be.”

The appeals court vacated the panel’s decision in February, with an 11-member panel now set to consider the case, giving the state another shot at salvaging the law.

“The NRA is out of touch with the vast majority of Americans who support commonsense gun safety laws, and who believe it’s important to take steps that are consistent with the Constitution to save lives,” Bonta said.

Benitez has raised the ire of gun-control advocates who claim his rulings are giveaways to the NRA, which is suffering from an array of legal setbacks including a lawsuit by New York’s top law enforcement officer seeking to dissolve the gun-rights organization.

Benitez’s rulings have also led to criticism from some legal experts and gun-control advocates that plaintiffs are twisting local rules to get gun cases directed to his court.

Kris Brown, president of the gun-control nonprofit Brady, said the U.S. Supreme Court is unlikely to back Benitez’s rulings if either case reaches the high court.

“I cannot imagine the court rubber-stamping those opinions -- they’re lacking in logic,” Brown said. Pointing to Benitez’s ruling in the assault-weapons ban case, in which the judge compared AR-15s to “Swiss Army knives,” Brown said such thinking is “crazy town.”

Eric Ruben, an assistant professor at SMU Dedman School of Law in Dallas and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, said the ruling on magazines is particularly vulnerable to reversal because it didn’t properly spell out why the restriction is a “substantial burden” on the Second Amendment.

Six Courts

“It’s the first time a federal district court concluded that large-capacity magazine bans are unconstitutional,” Ruben said. “And six federal appeals courts have upheld the constitutionality of these restrictions.”

Erik Jaffe, a lawyer for Firearms Policy Coalition, one of the plaintiffs, said California’s lawmakers are the ones who lack logic. He said they pass illegal gun-control laws to score political points instead of focusing on preventing crime.

“When we decided to protect the right to bear arms, everyone understood that guns killed people,” Jaffe said. “They understood the costs -- the risks -- of having arms out and about in the world, and they made a policy choice that said the benefits outweigh the costs.”

And plaintiffs’ attorney George M. Lee, who is involved in suits challenging both state laws, said law-abiding citizens shouldn’t be burdened by an arbitrary limit on bullets.

“There’s no evidence that bans on large-capacity magazines do anything to reduce crime or reduce the number of fatalities that are associated with a mass killing,” Lee said.

(Every town for Gun Safety, which advocates for universal background checks and gun-safety measures, is backed by Michael Bloomberg, founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP.)

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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