The California assault weapons ban decision shows the dangerous, lasting impact of the NRA

A federal court’s decision to overturn California’s assault weapons ban echoes many talking points the National Rifle Association has been pumping out for years, demonstrating the influence the organization still has on firearms policy debate.

In the June 4 decision, U.S. District Judge Roger Benitez -- a President George W. Bush appointee -- overturned California's assault weapons ban, which has been in effect for over 30 years. In his 94-page ruling, the judge called the ban a “failed experiment” and wrote that “like the Swiss Army Knife, the popular AR-15 rifle is a perfect combination of home defense weapon and homeland defense equipment.” Benitez did grant the California attorney general a 30-day stay of the ruling to allow him to appeal the decision, which he has already done

Several of the judge’s justifications for overturning the ban sound eerily similar to the arguments the NRA has made over the years. For example, Benitez wrote that “killing by knife attack is far more common than murder by any kind of rifle.” 

The NRA has been making that exact same argument for several years to claim that guns are just a tool and it’s people who are dangerous. On the now-defunct outlet NRATV, then-NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch opined that it is unfair to say “mass shootings” because knife crimes aren’t called “mass knifings.” NRATV hosts have also tried to claim guns get more blame for crime because they’re louder, complained that “as a gunman or a shooter, guns become permanently linked with his crime, while cars and knives get a free pass,” and called gun violence a “silly term” because “it’s people violence.” 

Further in his decision, Benitez wrote that the problem with keeping the assault weapons ban in place is that there is no “limiting principle and [it] would justify incremental firearm bans until there is only a single-shot derringer remaining for lawful self-defense.” This reasoning sounds remarkably similar to the NRA’s argument that any and all gun safety legislation is a “slippery slope” toward gun confiscation -- a claim the organization has been making since the 1930s.       

Benitez also speculated that a “fully loaded” semiautomatic rifle is “surely a powerful psychological criminal deterrent” and that “simply brandishing such a weapon may cause an intruder to flee” without the gun owner having to fire a shot.  

The NRA’s magazine, America’s 1st Freedom, has at least twice since 2018 made the argument that defensive gun usage is difficult to track for precisely this reason -- that crimes which are “avoided” due to the presence of a gun are not reported. 

Finally, the judge argued that a relevant reason to overturn the ban is the reliance of citizen militias on the Second Amendment and the possible use of semiautomatic rifles to fight back against a tyrannical government. As proof, he cited citizen militias in Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, Iraqi insurgents, and the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Similarly, in 2017, former NRATV host Colion Noir wrote an article for America’s 1st Freedom in which he asserted that the importance of the Second Amendment “in relation to defending our country from a tyrannical government, foreign or domestic, is greatly understated” and suggested guns are the reason we live in the “freest country in the world.” 

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wrote an op-ed for The Daily Caller in 2013 and criticized then-President Barack Obama after he told Americans to disregard those who think “tyranny is always lurking just around the corner.” LaPierre went on to write that “NRA members know tyranny when we see it.” Most recently, a 2020 article in America’s 1st Freedom criticized then-candidate Joe Biden for dismissing the idea that armed citizens can fight back against the U.S. government.  

While the NRA is currently embroiled in legal woes -- including the New York attorney general’s lawsuit to dissolve the organization -- and crawling its way out of debt, this court decision demonstrates that the group’s talking points have permeated the conversation around gun violence. After decades of bad-faith attacks on the efforts to pass gun safety legislation, this is not surprising. Rather, it shows that dismantling the organization will not immediately dismantle its impact.