U.S. appeals court keeps California assault weapons ban in force

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court ruled on Saturday that California’s assault weapons ban will remain in force while the state attorney general appeals a lower court decision declaring the 30-year-old measure unconstitutional.

A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked the injunction issued last week by U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez in San Diego from taking effect while the case remains under review.

The panel also unanimously agreed that state Attorney General Rob Bonta’s appeal in support of the gun law would be heard on its merits on an expedited basis.

Siding with gun rights advocates, Benitez ruled on Oct. 19 that assault weapons prohibition deprived law-abiding citizens of semiautomatic firearms like the AR-15 in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”

But by a 2-1 majority the 9th Circuit panel stayed the judge’s order, citing the full appeals court’s finding in a similar case that the attorney general was likely to succeed on the merits and had shown that “California would be irreparably harmed absent a stay.”

Bonta, a Democrat who called Benitez’ decision “dangerous and misguided,” welcomed Saturday’s 9th Circuit order.

“Weapons of war do not belong on our streets,” Bonta said, pointing to a mass shooting earlier this week in Lewiston, Maine, that claimed 18 lives and left 13 others wounded.

California in 1989 became the first U.S. state to ban assault weapons, acting in the wake of a school shooting that killed five children and toughening the law the following year.

Since then, California has restricted the manufacture, distribution, transportation, importation, sale or possession of firearms that qualify under the law as “assault weapons.” Such guns are defined as those with certain tactical enhancements or configurations designed to make them more dangerous to the public and thus susceptible to criminal use.

Benitez declared the same law unconstitutional in 2021. But the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit last year vacated his order and directed Benitez to review the matter further.

Benitez last month also ruled California’s ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines unconstitutional. But the 9th Circuit subsequently allowed that statute to remain in effect while the state appeals.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)