Federal judge again overturns California ban on high-capacity gun magazines

A federal judge for the second time overturned California’s ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets, ruling Friday that it lacked a historical basis and is therefore unconstitutional.

“This case is about a California state law that makes it a crime to keep and bear common firearm magazines typically possessed for lawful purposes,” wrote U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez of San Diego in a 71-page decision published Friday. “Based on the text, history and tradition of the 2nd Amendment, this law is clearly unconstitutional. “

Benitez’s ruling, which is stayed for 10 days while California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta’s office refers it to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, would enjoin Bonta and all law enforcement officers in California from enforcing the section of the state’s penal code that bans large-capacity magazines.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez on Friday overturned California’s ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines that can hold more than 10 bullets.

(Courtesy of U.S. Courts)

The ruling from Benitez, who had overturned the same ban in 2019 and is a darling of the political right for his record of rolling back gun control legislation, was widely expected. Bonta’s deputies have already filed a notice of appeal.

“We believe that the district court got this wrong,” Bonta said in a statement Friday afternoon. “We will move quickly to correct this incredibly dangerous mistake.”

California has banned the sale or purchase of large-capacity magazines for more than two decades. In 2016, voters approved Proposition 63, which banned the possession of such magazines as well. The proposition sparked the lawsuit, which has been on a legal roller coaster since.

Whether the ban will fare any better before higher courts remains to be seen, but experts say the law and others like it across the country face a tough road.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta

California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta is appealing a decision that struck down California’s large-capacity magazine ban as unconstitutional.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Benitez’s ruling is just the latest blow to California’s beleaguered effort to restrict access to firearms — and particularly the high-powered kind favored by mass shooters — since the Supreme Court’s monumental pro-gun rights decision 15 months ago in New York State Rifle & Pistol Assn. Inc. vs. Bruen.

In that case, the nation’s highest court rejected a long-standing pillar of 2nd Amendment law, that governments may enforce certain firearms restrictions if they have a compelling government interest in doing so. Instead, the high court said restrictions on firearms can be legitimate only if they are deeply rooted in American history or analogous to some historical rule.

Even before the Bruen decision, Benitez had rejected the validity of California’s magazine ban, writing in his 2019 decision that the law effectively made criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens.

“Crime waves cannot be broken with warrantless searches and unreasonable seizures. Neither can the government response to a few madmen with guns and ammunition be a law that turns millions of responsible, law-abiding people trying to protect themselves into criminals,” Benitez wrote at the time. “Yet, this is the effect of California’s large-capacity magazine law.”

The state appealed Benitez’s decision to the 9th Circuit. In 2020, a three-judge panel of circuit judges upheld Benitez’s decision. However, the case was taken back up by an 11-judge “en banc” panel of circuit judges, which ruled 7 to 4 to uphold the law.

That decision was then appealed to the Supreme Court, which overturned the en banc panel and sent the case back to the 9th Circuit for reconsideration in light of its Bruen decision. The circuit court sent the case back down to be re-litigated before Benitez.

Benitez’s decision on Friday — emboldened by Bruen — was even more forceful in its rejection of the magazine ban than his 2019 decision. The judge said California’s 10-round limit was without precedent, “arbitrary,” “capricious” and “extreme.”

Under the ban, “the previously law-abiding California citizen who buys and keeps at her bedside a nationally popular Glock 17 (with its standard 17-round magazine) becomes the criminal,” Benitez wrote in his decision, “because the State dictates that a gun with a 17-round magazine is not well-suited for home defense.”

Several residents of San Diego County joined the California Rifle & Pistol Assn. to sue the state over the magazine ban in 2017, arguing it was their right under the 2nd Amendment to possess large-capacity magazines — which they said were common in the U.S. and are necessary for self-defense.

“Indeed, many of the nation’s best-selling handguns and rifles come standard with magazines that can hold more than 10 rounds, and firearms equipped with such magazines are safely possessed by law-abiding citizens in the vast majority of states,” the plaintiffs argued. “The reason for the popularity of these magazines is straightforward: In a confrontation with a violent attacker, having enough ammunition can be the difference between life and death.”

If the state’s ban were lifted, the lead plaintiff, Virginia Duncan, “would immediately acquire and continuously possess a magazine over 10 rounds within California for lawful purposes, including in-home self-defense,” the complaint read.

Duncan’s attorney, Chuck Michel, who is president and general counsel of the California Rifle and Pistol Association, called Benitez’s ruling “thoughtful and in-depth.”

“Today’s rulings represent continued affirmation that the Bruen decision, and Heller before that, represent a sea change in the way courts must look at these absurdly restrictive laws,” Michel said in a statement. “Sure, the state has appealed, but the clock is ticking on laws that violate the Constitution like this one.”

But Gov. Gavin Newsom said that with his latest ruling, Benitez was no longer “even pretending” to be an impartial jurist. “This is politics, pure and simple,” he said in a statement.