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9th Circuit Issues Stay of Lower Court's Decision Revoking California Assault Weapons Ban

Rack of AR-15s at a gun shop
By Joseph Fawbush, Esq. on June 22, 2021 4:00 PM

In an opinion that made national headlines, U.S. District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez early in June held that California's longstanding assault weapons ban was unconstitutional. At the request of California's attorney general, however, Judge Benitez issued a stay of the ruling for 30 days. On Monday, June 22, a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals panel extended that stay, meaning California's 1989 law prohibiting assault weapons, including the sale of AR-15s, will stand unless the Ninth Circuit upholds Judge Benitez's decision later this year.

California's Assault Weapons Ban

California has prohibited the sale of AR-15s, the consumer semi-automatic guns that mimic the military's automatic M-16 rifles, since 1989. In 2019, a California resident and a gun rights organization challenged this ban in federal court, arguing that it violates the Second Amendment. Judge Benitez agreed, holding that California's ban targeted “normal guns utilized in normal manners for normal purposes" that was protected under the Supreme Court decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

Is an AR-15 an Assault Weapon or for Home Defense?

AR-15s are often at the center of the debate surrounding assault weapons bans. The popular rifles are semi-automatic, requiring the shooter to pull the trigger to fire each round. A fully automatic rifle, on the other hand, only requires the shooter to hold down the trigger and the gun will fire until the clip is empty. A typical AR-15 rifle can hold approximately 30 rounds.

AR-15 owners and gun rights activists argue that the guns are used for hunting and target practice, in addition to home defense. Judge Benitez, in his June 4 opinion, wrote that AR-15s are “good for both home and battle." Proponents of stricter gun control point to AR-15-style rifles being used in nearly all of the deadliest mass shootings in America. The National Rifle Association estimates there are over 8 million AR-15-style guns in circulation in the country.

The Debate Over AR-15s Continue

While we have yet to hear from the Ninth Circuit on any of the substantive issues in the case, the issue of regulating AR-15s and similar semi-automatic assault rifles continues. The federal government's prohibition on assault weapons lapsed in 2004. Only a handful of states have implemented their own ban, including California. The others are Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia.

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