In a no-holds-barred rebuke of the federal judge who recently overturned California’s assault weapons ban, Gov. Gavin Newsom lambasted U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez on Thursday as a “wholly-owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and the National Rifle Association.”
“We need to call this federal judge out,” the Democratic governor told reporters as he announced the state’s decision to appeal Benitez’s ruling. “He will continue to do damage. Mark my words.”
Benitez struck down California’s three-decade-old ban on certain types of semi-automatic rifles, including the popular AR-15, last week. Gun control advocates skewered Benitez for the decision, while Newsom called it “a direct threat to public safety and the lives of innocent Californians, period.”
In his decision, Benitez likened the AR-15 to a “Swiss Army knife” and described it as a “perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”
“This case is not about extraordinary weapons lying at the outer limits of Second Amendment protection,” he wrote. “This is an average case about average guns used in average ways for average purposes.”
According to a March analysis by Newsweek, 26% of the last 80 mass shootings in the U.S., including some of the deadliest, involved the use of an AR-15, which was designed ― according to its makers ― to have “maximum wound effect.”
Yet Benitez wrote in his decision that “the ‘harm’ of an assault rifle being used in a mass shooting is an infinitesimally rare event.”
“More people have died from the COVID-19 vaccine than mass shootings in California,” he wrote without citing evidence.
Benitez also asserted that “injuries from firearms like the AR-15 which are banned as ‘assault weapons’ are no different from other firearms that are common and lawful to own.”
Physicians, however, have said otherwise.
Dr. Heather Sher, a Florida radiologist who has treated many gunshot wound victims, including the teenagers shot at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, said in an op-ed that year that the “bullets fired by an AR-15 … travel at a higher velocity and are far more lethal than routine bullets fired from a handgun.“
“A typical AR-15 bullet leaves the barrel traveling almost three times faster than – and imparting more than three times the energy of – a typical 9mm bullet from a handgun,“ Sher wrote. ”An AR-15 rifle outfitted with a magazine with 50 rounds allows many more lethal bullets to be delivered quickly without reloading.“
Benitez — a 2003 George W. Bush appointee — is no stranger to controversy, particularly on the gun control front. In 2017, he reversed a state ban on the sale of large-capacity magazines holding more than 10 bullets; and in 2020, he blocked a law requiring background checks for people wanting to buy ammunition.
California is currently appealing both decisions.
On Thursday, Newsom described Benitez as a “stone-cold ideologue” and shill of the gun industry.
“This is a very focused agenda to work through this judge, where the decision’s already made before it’s even presented, who writes press releases on behalf of the gun lobby,” the governor said.
Gun rights groups were quick to criticize Newsom’s choice of words.
The Firearms Policy Coalition said in a statement that it “condemns Governor Newsom’s outrageous and callous personal attacks on the honorable Federal District Court Judge Roger T. Benitez.”
“Gavin Newsom’s Department of Justice had the opportunity to present its facts in court — and failed to do so,” California Rifle and Pistol Association President C.D. Michel told Politico. “Now that Judge Benitez ruled against Gavin Newsom, he is shamefully attacking a federal judge with politicized falsehoods because Newsom got a result he didn’t like. Newsom can stomp his feet all he wants, but the Constitution will win the day.”
Benitez had issued an automatic 30-stay of his ruling overturning the assault weapons ban, acknowledging the state’s inevitable appeal.
The case now heads to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and could possibly end up before the Supreme Court, which currently has a 6-3 conservative majority.
There is “a lot on the line,” Newsom said Thursday.