Who is Roger Benitez? Judge says AR-15 like a Swiss knife, lifts 32-yr-old assault weapons ban

A federal judge overturned California's three-decade-old ban on military-style rifles ruling that it violates the constitutional right to bear arms


                            Who is Roger Benitez? Judge says AR-15 like a Swiss knife, lifts 32-yr-old assault weapons ban
Judge Roger Benitez overturned 30-year-old ban on assault weapons ruling it violates the Second Amendment's right to bear arms (United States District Court for the Southern District of California)

Federal court judge Roger Benitez on Friday, June 4, ruled that California's ban on assault rifles is unconstitutional. He has deemed the ban illegal, meaning the state will have to allow sales of military-style weapons, unless the decision is overturned.

Assault rifles have become a thorny issue among pro and anti-gun groups. In January 2021, a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia saw thousands of protesters carry assault rifles and protest against upcoming gun control laws. Republican-controlled states have been actively pushing to legalize assault rifles, as Colorado did in March 2021. A Boulder judge blocked the city from enforcing an assault rifle ban, which the NRA then came under fire for celebrating.  “Like the Swiss Army knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Good for both home and battle,” Benitez said in his controversial ruling’s introduction.

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Assault rifles have been repeatedly used in major mass shootings, such as the supermarket shooting in Boulder and in the deadly Christchurch mosque attack in New Zealand in 2019. Yet, pro-gun lobbyists are pushing to legalize their use, with California becoming the latest domino to fall. Benitez has given the state plenty of time to appeal the decision, which it is expected to do. 

A demonstrator holds a sign depicting an assault rifle at a protest against President Trump's visit on August 7, 2019 in El Paso, Texas. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Who is Roger Benitez?

Born in Havana, Cuba, Benitez emigrated to America as a child. He did his schooling in El Centro before earning an Associate in Arts degree from Imperial Valley Community College in 1971. Benitez also attended San Diego State University (1974), before obtaining a JD from Western State University College of Law (1978). He then joined a private law firm and was engaged in private practice for nearly 20 years. During this time, he also became a part-time instructor at Imperial Valley College.

In 1997, Benitez was first appointed to the California Supreme Court, where he served until 2001. He was then appointed as a United States Magistrate Judge for the Southern District. In 2003, then-president George W Bush nominated Benitez to a new seat on the Southern District of California. He was confirmed by the Senate in 2004 and assumed Senior status in 2017. During his long career, he has also sat on assignments in Arizona, Guam and Saipan(Northern Marinara islands). 

Benitez is notable for his opposition to California's gun laws. The ban on assault rifles is the second time he has clashed with the state. Back in 2019, he ruled that the ban on gun magazines was "unconstitutional". In his decision, Benitez wrote, "California’s law places a severe restriction on the core right of self-defense of the home such that it amounts to a destruction of the right and is unconstitutional under any level of scrutiny." 

For his decisions, Benitez has been widely celebrated by conservatives and the NRA. The San Diego Union-Tribune wrote in 2020, "His rulings have wide implications, not only in California but also across the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — a huge section of the nation stretching from Montana to Hawaii and Guam to Alaska." Those decisions have also led to a lot of scrutiny by gun-control groups, especially over the fact that Benitez has been assigned numerous high-profile gun-related cases. 

An image of Roger Benitez in court. (Twitter)

Benitez calls AR-15 a 'perfect combination'

In his latest ruling, Benitez wrote, "Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment. Yet, the State of California makes it a crime to have an AR15 type rifle." Benitez added, "Government is not free to impose its own new policy choices on American citizens where Constitutional rights are concerned." He concluded, "Therefore, this Court declares the California statutes to be unconstitutional."

In his ruling, the judge also criticized the media, writing, "One is to be forgiven if one is persuaded by news media and others that the nation is awash with murderous AR-15 assault rifles. The facts, however, do not support this hyperbole, and facts matter."

However, if one were to check the events related to gun violence in the US one will find that AR-15 style rifles have been the weapon of choice for numerous mass shooters, including in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Route 91 Harvest musical festival in Las Vegas, a massacre at a church in Texas, the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, the high school in Parkland, Florida, and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, among others.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, a former student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where he allegedly killed 17 people ((Photo by Susan Stocker - Pool/Getty Images)

The ruling hasn't just gone down badly with gun-control groups, but also California Governor Gavin Newsom. "The fact that this judge compared the AR-15 — a weapon of war that’s used on the battlefield — to a Swiss Army Knife completely undermines the credibility of this decision and is a slap in the face to the families who’ve lost loved ones to this weapon," Newsom said in a statement. This isn't the end of the fight though, as the Attorney General's Office has already announced its plans to appeal, which Benitez has given them 30 days to do.

"Today’s decision is fundamentally flawed, and we will be appealing it," AG Rob Bonta said in a statement. "There is no sound basis in law, fact, or common sense for equating assault rifles with swiss army knives."

California's assault weapon ban goes back to 1989 but has been expanded over the years to cover more weapons. The ban is one of the several reasons the state has a lower rate of gun violence. In 2019, the state was ranked 42nd for gun-related deaths by the Centre for American Progress

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