Federal Judge Upholds California Ban on Semiautomatic Rifles

Last week, a federal judge in Santa Ana, California ruled that the Second Amendment does not prevent California from enacting reasonable gun safety laws. This case arose when the California Rifle and Pistol Association, part of the National Rifle Association, challenged a state law that prevents California residents from making, owning, or selling semiautomatic rifles. These guns have features like detachable magazines that allow them to be fired repeatedly without reloading. The law also bans making, owning, or selling bullet buttons. These are devices that can turn an ordinary rifle into a rapid-fire gun. A gun owner can attach a bullet button to a standard gun magazine so that they can replace the magazine more efficiently.

The judge relied in part on decisions in federal courts in other states, since a California federal court had not previously reviewed this law. She determined that semiautomatic rifles and bullet buttons are not necessary for self-defense, so they are not covered by the Second Amendment. In finding that a semiautomatic rifle is a dangerous and unusual weapon, she noted that it is similar to a machine gun because it can fire hundreds of rounds per minute. A semiautomatic rifle also can fire through buildings, which increases the risk of harming innocent bystanders. Furthermore, the judge pointed out that semiautomatic rifles frequently are used in hate crimes, gang warfare, and mass shootings perpetrated by mentally challenged individuals.

This ruling diverges from previous decisions in another federal court in California, which reviewed the state law prohibiting gun magazines that hold more than 10 cartridges. A different judge in San Diego ruled that banning high-capacity gun magazines violated the Second Amendment because it limited the ability of citizens to defend themselves. However, that judge ultimately left the ban in effect when the state appealed his decision. The Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals will determine whether the ban is constitutional.

Courts in California and other states may need to revisit gun laws once the Supreme Court reviews further Second Amendment cases. For example, the justices soon will decide whether citizens have a constitutional right to carry guns outside their homes. The two recent appointees to the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, appear to support a more robust interpretation of the Second Amendment than many of their predecessors. When he was a federal appeals court judge, Kavanaugh ruled that the Second Amendment does not permit bans on semiautomatic weapons.

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