U.S. appeals court blocks judge's decision to overturn state's assault weapons ban

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A screenshot of an en banc panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on June 6, 2016, while hearing the San Diego-based case Peruta v. County of San Diego involving concealed-carry gun permits.
A panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is seen on June 6, 2016, while hearing Peruta vs. County of San Diego, a case involving concealed-carry gun permits. (U.S. Courts / For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

A federal appeals court decided Monday to put on hold a judge's decision to overturn California's 30-year-old ban on assault weapons, but the legal fight could continue for months and may be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a brief order, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of Judge Roger T. Benitez's June 4 decision, in which he likened an AR-15 semiautomatic to a Swiss Army knife and called it "good for both home and battle."

Benitez's decision overturning the California ban gave the state 30 days to challenge the decision. The 9th Circuit, acting on a June 10 appeal filed by Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta, put Benitez's ruling on hold pending decisions in other gun cases that are now before the court.

"This leaves our assault weapons laws in effect while appellate proceedings continue," Bonta said in a tweet. "We won't stop defending these life-saving laws."

The 9th Circuit judges on the panel issuing the stay were Barry G. Silverman, an appointee of President Clinton; Jacqueline Nguyen, an Obama appointee; and Ryan D. Nelson, a Trump appointee.

The order said the stay would be in effect until the 9th Circuit ruled in another case challenging California's assault weapons regulations. That case also has been put on hold pending a ruling in a lawsuit over California's ban on large-capacity magazines.

An 11-judge 9th Circuit "en banc" panel is scheduled to hear arguments in that case Tuesday, and the ruling is likely to determine the future of the state's assault weapons ban. A majority of the judges on the panel are Democratic appointees.

Benitez also was the judge who struck down the voter-approved 2016 ban on large-capacity magazines. A three-judge 9th Circuit panel upheld his decision, but the state successfully sought review by a larger en banc panel. Gov. Gavin Newsom authored the ballot measure banning the magazines when he was the state's lieutenant governor.

Benitez, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, said the assault weapons ban unconstitutionally infringed on the rights of California gun owners and “has had no effect” on curtailing mass shootings.

California is one of seven states and Washington, D.C., that ban assault weapons. The California case is expected to go to the Supreme Court, where a majority of justices are conservative and some have been highly critical of gun regulations.

Twenty-two states, led by Arizona, which is under the 9th Circuit's jurisdiction, asked the appeals court to uphold the order against California's law.

"Calling modern rifles 'assault weapons' is a misnomer— they are most often used by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes like personal protection or target and sport shooting," the states argued. "There is nothing sinister about citizens keeping or bearing a modern rifle."

Joining Arizona were Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The Firearms Policy Coalition, which challenged the assault weapons ban, criticized the 9th Circuit for putting Benitez’s decision “on ice” and choosing “government tyranny over human lives and rights.”

“Tens of millions of Californians have suffered under the state’s unconstitutional and oppressive gun control scheme for far too long,” the group said.

California passed the ban more than 30 years ago in response to a 1989 mass shooting in a Stockton schoolyard. The shooter used an AK-47 and large-capacity magazines to kill five children.

In the appeal to the 9th Circuit, state officials said five federal appeals courts have rejected constitutional challenges to assault weapons bans.

California's law restricts the manufacture, importation, sale and possession of rifles, pistols and shotguns defined as “assault weapons” under the state's penal code.

Benitez, who serves in the Southern District of California, is well known for his pro-gun rulings.

His decision overturning the assault weapons ban spurred outrage across the country. Newsom, in announcing the state's appeal, said California would never "let these weapons of war back onto our streets."

“This is a fight California will never back down from, period," the governor said.

Supporters of gun restrictions have worried that Benitez’s decision was part of a strategy by the gun lobby to get cases to the U.S. Supreme Court, where appointees by former President Trump are seen as sympathetic to 2nd Amendment arguments.

“A lot is on the line,” Newsom said.

California was the first state to ban assault weapons. Gov. George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican, signed the original law, which banned the manufacture and sale of about 60 models of assault weapons.

The state expanded the law several times over the following years to add a features-based definition of assault weapons to prevent gun makers from producing firearms functionally identical to the banned models.

Staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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