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Newsom calls federal judge “wholly owned subsidiary of gun lobby”

Governor Gavin Newsom, pictured above, called Benitez an “icy ideologue” whose decisions are “press releases on behalf of the gun lobby.” | Eric Risberg / AP Photo

SAN FRANCISCO – California Governor Gavin Newsom delivered an extraordinarily fierce rebuke on Thursday against the federal judge who overturned the California assault weapons ban, calling the judge “a wholly owned subsidiary of the gun lobby and of the National Rifle Association “.

U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez sparked outrage from California officials in a ruling on Friday that equated the AR-15s with “a Swiss army knife” and said coronavirus vaccines had killed more Californians than mass shootings. Newsom and state attorney general Rob Bonta condemned the comments as both inaccurate and offensive to victims of gun violence and vowed to appeal.

Newsom stepped up its rhetoric at a press conference Thursday announcing the call. Speaking on the roof of the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, Newsom called Benitez a “frozen ideologue” whose decisions are “press releases on behalf of the gun lobby.”

“We have to call this judge federal,” Newsom said. “He will continue to do damage. Listen to me carefully.”

Appointed by President George W. Bush, Benitez has rendered several rulings against California’s strict gun laws. The San Diego-based judge rendered rulings in 2019 and 2020 that found the state’s ammunition restrictions unconstitutional; both were contained in a 2016 voting initiative that Newsom championed. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals said this year it would reconsider one of the high-capacity magazine cases.

Newsom and gun control advocates lambasted gun rights activists for seeking to bring substantial cases to Benitez in a tactic Newsom called “judge shopping.”

“I don’t believe this judge would uphold a single gun law anywhere, ever,” said Robyn Thomas of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

Newsom has long been a strong supporter of gun control, attacking the NRA and defending the 2016 initiative that imposed background checks on ammunition sales and banned high-capacity magazines. Two weeks ago, after a massive shooting at a San José streetcar construction site, Newsom said, “What the hell is going on in the United States of America? But the governor’s direct conviction on Thursday of a sitting judge was a remarkable example of animosity between two branches of government.

Benitez automatically put his decision on hold for 30 days, acknowledging that the state would pursue the appeal that Newsom and Bonta pledged to file. The California Rifle and Pistol Association this week welcomed Benitez’s decision and said he had “made bold and comprehensive decisions in favor of the Second Amendment” in recent years.

The stakes in the case are extremely high given it is likely to land in a United States Supreme Court with a Conservative 6-3 majority. That could lead to an unfavorable ruling that would set a broader precedent that both overturns the California ban and more broadly limits gun restrictions.

Bonta deflected a question on this outcome, saying he was focused on the call. But Newsom acknowledged the greater danger, saying the case could land in “a stacked court that has undergone a vetting process” to produce Supreme Court justices who believe in an “extended right to bear arms.”

“Serious moment,” Newsom said. “A lot at stake.”

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