On November 30, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld California’s ban on so-called “large-capacity” firearm magazines. In doing so, it reversed earlier rulings that found the restriction unconstitutional. This latest ruling, in the case of Duncan v. Bonta, was 7-4.
“The ban on legal possession of large-capacity magazines reasonably supports California’s effort to reduce the devastating damage wrought by mass shootings,” wrote Circuit Judge Susan Graber, a President Bill Clinton appointee.
In August of 2020, gun owners received a very positive decision from a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit in the case then known as Duncan v. Becerra (the name changed after Rob Bonta replaced Xavier Becerra as California’s attorney general). This decision was an appeal from federal Judge Roger Benitez’s court concerning California’s “large-capacity” magazine (LCM) ban.
The August 2020 decision read, in part: “California’s near-categorical ban of LCMs strikes at the core of the Second Amendment—the right to armed self-defense. 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.”
The decision also ruled that firearm magazines are protected arms under the Second Amendment and that LCMs are commonly owned and typically used for lawful purposes
Benitez had also rendered another landmark decision when he ruled in Miller v. Bonta that the AR-15 is protected by the Second Amendment. This ruling is memorable for its opening sentence: “Like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.”
Because Duncan was already working its way through the Ninth Circuit and presented overlapping issues on the proper standard for evaluating Second Amendment cases, the Ninth Circuit delayed deciding the state’s appeal in Miller.
Of course, after losing Duncan at the Ninth Circuit before the three judge panel, the California attorney general persuaded the full Ninth Circuit Court to consider what is called an en banc appeal (in which a larger panel of judges hears the case again). This is typically the step where all favorable gun-rights decisions die in the Ninth Circuit.
True to form, California won before that en banc panel, with dissenting judges urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal. The Supreme Court may well hear the case, although it is impossible to say with certainty. If so, the Justices could go along with Benitez’s broad recognition of LCMs as protected by the Second Amendment. Should that happen, the precedent could affect other pending cases as well, including those dealing with prohibitions on the AR-15 and other semiautomatic long guns. Whatever happens, we’ll keep you informed.
Clayton E. Cramer teaches history at a community college in Idaho that prefers anonymity.