Federal Court Rules California Gun Magazine Ban and Confiscation Scheme Unconstitutional

Ninth Circuit affirms right to self-defense

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August 14, 2020

A federal appeals court ruled on Friday that California's ban on the possession of ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds violates the Second Amendment.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed U.S. District Judge Roger T. Benitez's 2019 ruling against the ban on magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The 2-1 decision asserted the magazine ban, which made both future sales of affected magazines and the possession of those already legally purchased punishable by up to a year in jail, was incompatible with Supreme Court precedent on gun-rights guarantees in the U.S. Constitution. Judge Kenneth Lee, joined by Judge Connie Callahan, said the ban violated Californians' right to self-defense.

"California's near-categorical ban of [large-capacity magazines] strikes at the core of the Second Amendment—the right to armed self-defense," Lee wrote in the opinion for the court. "Armed self-defense is a fundamental right rooted in tradition and the text of the Second Amendment. Indeed, from pre-colonial times to today's post-modern era, the right to defend hearth and home has remained paramount. California's law imposes a substantial burden on this right to self-defense."

The majority took issue with the state's definition of "large-capacity," pointing out that the magazines the state sought to ban and confiscate are standard in the most popular firearms on the market. It argued the law was too expansive and would make criminals of law-abiding residents who merely possessed a gun magazine in common circulation.

"The ban makes it criminal for Californians to own magazines that come standard in Glocks, Berettas, and other handguns that are staples of self-defense. Its scope is so sweeping that half of all magazines in America are now unlawful to own in California. Even law-abiding citizens, regardless of their training and track record, must alter or turn over to the state any [large-capacity magazines] that they may have legally owned for years—or face up to a year in jail."

California attorney general Xavier Becerra (D.) has defended the confiscation scheme throughout the case and made the decision to appeal to the Ninth Circuit in the wake of Benitez's decision. The attorney general now has the option of requesting an "en banc" hearing before an 11-member panel of the Ninth Circuit. His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the new ruling.

Second Amendment activists welcomed the decision. Chuck Michel, president of the California Rifle & Pistol Association, which brought the suit, said the ruling was a major victory for the Second Amendment, "both in California and across the country."

Judge Barbara Lynn dissented from the ruling, arguing that while the confiscation law burdens Second Amendment conduct, it does not "substantially" burden it because residents would still have access to magazines holding less than 10 rounds.

The National Rifle Association, which also supported the case, said that President Donald Trump—whom the group endorsed for reelection—deserved credit for the legal victory. NRA spokeswoman Amy Hunter praised the White House for appointing Judge Lee to the Ninth Circuit.

"The Ninth Circuit, which isn't often a favorable court for gun owners, ruled it is unconstitutional to place arbitrary bans on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. The judge who authored the opinion in this case was appointed by President Trump," Hunter said. "Everyone who voted pro-gun in 2016 played a role in this significant win."

After Benitez initially struck down the ban last year, Californians began purchasing previously banned magazines. Benitez specifically outlined protections for those Californians who purchased magazines during what gun-rights advocates dubbed "Freedom Week." The issue has already come up in one case in which a man was charged for possession of a 15-round magazine in June 2020.