A senior federal judge in California overturned the state’s longtime ban on assault weapons Friday, likening an AR-15 to a Swiss Army Knife in his ruling.
“Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment,” wrote Roger Benitez.
It was far from the first time Roger Benitez took an expansive definition of the Second Amendment. In fact, he has sided with gun rights advocates so often that some activists believe such groups are deliberately steering their cases to him. He has repeatedly ruled against California’s gun laws, to the delight of gun rights advocates and the frustration of officials and gun control groups. Fox News dubbed him a “Pro-Second Amendment Judge” in an October 2020 headline.
Born in Havana, Cuba in 1950 and nominated to the federal bench by George W. Bush in 2003, Benitez overturned a law in California requiring background checks for anyone purchasing ammunition with a mammoth 120-page ruling in April of last year.
“California’s new ammunition background check law misfires and the Second Amendment rights of California citizens have been gravely injured,” he wrote. The state has appealed the ruling.
Benitez also struck down a California ban on high-capacity magazines in 2019. The case is scheduled to be reheard on June 22. In 2017, he had temporarily barred the law from taking effect in the first place.
“California’s law prohibiting acquisition and possession of magazines able to hold any more than 10 rounds places a severe restriction on the core right of self-defense of the home such that it amounts to a destruction of the right and is unconstitutional under any level of scrutiny,” he wrote at the time.
California gun control groups contend that gun rights organizations are abusing a procedural rule of federal court to have Benitez hear their cases. Federal courts allow for related cases—ones that concern essentially the same legal questions as preceding ones—to be transferred from one federal judge to another in the same district after a case is assigned, which is a random process. In the Southern District of California, there is no formal option to challenge a transfer, though the state’s attorney general tried to do so late last year when a lawsuit against the state over what handguns can be sold under the Safe Handguns Roster was assigned to Benitez.
“(Benitez) reads the Second Amendment more broadly than just about any other court in the country,” Eric Tirschwell, the managing director for gun control group Everytown Law, told The San Diego Union-Tribune last year. “And he regularly adopts the language and tone of the gun lobby. His decisions on Second Amendment issues often read more like what an advocate would write and not what you would expect from a neutral dispassionate judge.”
Benitez declined a petition from Tirschwell’s organization to file an amicus brief in the high-capacity magazine case.
Benitez’s Friday ruling has a ways to go before it is the law of the land. State Attorney General Rob Bonta vowed to appeal Friday’s ruling before it is slated to take effect in 30 days. Gov. Gavin Newsom raged against it, calling it a “slap in the face” to victims of gun violence and enumerating mass shootings carried out with AR-15 in tweets.
Benitez may make another ruling on weapons soon: a case challenging California’s ban on billy clubs and blackjacks is currently on his docket.