A federal judge has upheld the state's long-standing ban on AR-15 rifles and similar weapons - and said the state had the right to extend that to "copycat" weapons that high slight differences from and different names than the weapons specifically mentioned in the original law.
Gun owners sued the state after Attorney General Maura Healey issued an "enforcement order" banning the so-called copycat weapons in 2016. They argued the 1994 law in general and Healey's proposed interpretation and extension violated the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court's 2008 Heller decision, which overturned a complete ban on the possession of guns in people's homes.
In a ruling filed late yesterday, US District Court Judge William Young - appointed by Ronald Reagan - started by tossing the claim that Healey's proposed copy-cat order violated gun owners' rights to due process by retroactively criminalizing the purchase and sale of "tens of thousands" of firearms that were legal at the time of the transactions. Young said the question was simply not legally "ripe" for adjudication yet, because the "enforcement order" was not yet a final state regulation - and that, in any case, the order itself says the state intends no action against people who bought the proscribed weapons before the order was announced.
But what of the state law itself? Young says that the Heller decision, in which the Supreme Court upheld the rights of Americans to possess firearms, has limits. Even Justice Scalia, who wrote the decision, recognized that some weapons - weapons that were of use mainly in wartime, such as machine guns - were exempt from the Second Amendment, Young writes:
The undisputed facts in this record convincingly demonstrate that the AR-15 and LCMs banned by the Act are "weapons that are most useful in military service." As matter of law, these weapons and LCMs thus fall outside the scope of the Second Amendment and may be banned.
The plantiffs argue that the AR-15 is the civilian version of the M16 because it cannot fire in fully automatic mode like the M16 and therefore cannot be considered a military weapon. As the plaintiffs also point out in their undisputed facts, however, "[i]mprovements in firearms technology tend to be adopted for both military and civilian use" and so "[f]irearms designers and manufacturers have historically marketed new developments for both miliary and civilian uses." As a result, the AR-15 is versatile and adaptable "for military, law enforcement, civilian self-defense, hunting, target shooting and other sporting purposes." ... The AR-15 design is almost identical to the MI16, except for the mode of firing.
Young continues to discuss the legal and technical issues involved, before concluding:
Both their general acceptance and their regulation, if any, are policy matters not for the courts, but left to the people directly through their elected representatives. In the absence of federal legislation, Massachusetts is free to ban these weapons and large capacity magazines. Other states are equally free to leave them unregulated and available to their law-abiding citizens. These policy matters are simply not of constitutional moment. Americans are not afraid of bumptious, raucous, and robust debate about these matters. We call it democracy.
Justice Scalia would be proud.
Complete ruling (2.2M PDF).