A federal appeals court on Tuesday restored California’s prohibition on high-capacity magazines, a decision with national implications that could also lead to the reinstatement of a state ban on semiautomatic weapons.
In a 7-4 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a state ban on magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition — reversing a federal judge’s decision that said the statute violated gun owners’ Second Amendment rights.
In the appeals court’s ruling, Judge Susan P. Graber rejected the argument of gun rights groups that the state law, first passed in 2000 and strengthened in 2016, violated the “core” right of California gun owners to self-defense.
“There is no evidence that anyone ever has been unable to defend his or her home and family due to the lack of a large-capacity magazine,” she wrote in a decision split along partisan lines. The seven jurists appointed by Democratic presidents supported the law and the four appointed by Republicans voted to strike it down.
In 2020, a three-judge federal panel upheld the ruling by Judge Roger T. Benitez of the U.S. District Court in San Diego to reverse the law, ultimately kicking the case up to the full appeals court.
“Today’s decision is a victory for public safety in California,” Attorney General Rob Bonta, the defendant in the case, said in a statement. “Gun violence is an epidemic in this country, but laws like our ban on large-capacity magazines are common-sense ways to prevent this violence, including devastating mass shootings.”
Jonathan Lowy, chief counsel for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which filed several briefs in support of the magazine ban, said the law was not a challenge to gun rights but a more limited attempt to restrict access to “military-style firearms” and large capacity clips that have been used in shootings around the country.
Both sides of the debate — gun control groups and gun rights activists — believe that Tuesday’s decision means the appeals court will reverse another one of Judge Benitez’s rulings, a decision this year to overturn the state’s semiautomatic weapons ban.
The gun owners group that brought the high-capacity magazine case, the California Rifle & Pistol Association, did not immediately say whether it would appeal. But Mr. Lowy and others said they believed there was a significant chance that at least one of the cases would find its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is already poised to overturn a New York law that imposes strict limits on carrying guns outside the home.
While the issues posed by the California cases are different, many gun rights groups see the court’s willingness to rule on the New York case as an indication of its openness to weighing in other high-profile gun cases.
Larry Keane, a top official with the National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade group, said Tuesday’s decision raised the pressure on the Supreme Court to clearly define the limit of state actions to regulate guns under the Second Amendment in the wake of District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 case that struck down much of Washington’s strict gun control law.
“We are disappointed by today’s ruling,” Mr. Keane said. “A law banning magazines that are ubiquitously chosen by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens including Californians is an unconstitutional infringement on the Second Amendment.”
Igor Volsky, the founder of Guns Down America, which supports stricter regulation of high-capacity magazines and semiautomatic weapons, said the appeals court’s decision was “reassuring” in the short term, but ultimately a mixed blessing.
“Should this ruling be appealed and make its way to the Supreme Court,” he said, “the high court’s conservative majority — and the outspoken support for expanding access to incredibly deadly weapons by some of the justices — poses a significant threat to us all.”
In recent years, pro-gun groups have increasingly challenged state restrictions on firearms, hoping to take advantage of the influx of conservative judges appointed under former President Donald J. Trump.