People are using large-capacity, semi-automatic weapons to commit mass murders, not protect themselves at home, a federal appeals court said yesterday, upholding the way Massachusetts bans the sale of certain assault weapons.
The decision, by the Court of Appeals for the First Circut in Boston, once again drives home the point that the Second Amendment does not grant an absolute right to own any sort of gun whatsoever. It comes just two days after a federal judge in Boston declined to overturn a man's gun conviction despite his arguments he had a Second Amendment right to own a gun without a state license - and the ruling upholds a federal judge's decision last year to uphold the Massachusetts list of weaponry that is banned for sale here.
In its opinion, the appeals court said the ban, which Attorney General Maura Healey moved to widen in 2016, is acceptable under the Supreme Court's Heller decision, which explicitly stated for the first time that Americans have the right to own guns, but which also said states could place reasonable restrictions on them:
The Court added that the Second Amendment does not confer "a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose."
At issue was Healey's determination that the law let her extend the ban to weapons that were not explicitly mentioned in a state list of forbidden weapons but which her office had determined were basically copies of weapons on the list. When she announced that, she promptly got sued by a group of gun manufacturers and owners.
The appeals court concluded that in the Heller decision, the Supreme Court made personal self defense, especially in the home, one of its lodestones for determining whether a weapon was valid under the Second Amendment.
The appeals court noted, more than once, the state law does not ban all semiautomatic assault weapons and that the ones it does ban " do not share the features that make handguns well-suited to self-defense in the home," such as being easily accessible or even able to be used with one hand by a homeowner who is dialing the police with another. The court contrasted such heavy weaponry with lightweight stun guns, which Massachusetts also tried to ban but which the Supreme Court said were allowed by the Second Amendment.
The court said:
In fact, when asked directly, not one of the plaintiffs or their six experts could identify even a single example of the use of an assault weapon for home self-defense, nor could they identify even a single example of a self-defense episode in which ten or more shots were fired. Viewed as a whole, the record suggests that wielding the proscribed weapons for self-defense within the home is tantamount to using a sledgehammer to crack open the shell of a peanut. Thus, we conclude that the Act does not heavily burden the core Second Amendment right of self-defense within the home.
If that is the case, is there a compelling reason for the state to apply regulations to certain weapons? The court said there is:
We have said before, and today reaffirm, that "few interests are more central to a state government than protecting the safety and well-being of its citizens." Gould, 907 F.3d at 673. Since Massachusetts indubitably "has compelling governmental interests in both public safety and crime prevention," id., the only question that remains is whether the Act is substantially related to those interests. The answer to this question depends on whether the fit between those interests and the Act is reasonable.
The record contains ample evidence of the unique dangers posed by the proscribed weapons. Semiautomatic assault weapons permit a shooter to fire multiple rounds very quickly, allowing him to hit more victims in a shorter period of time. LCMs [large-capacity magazines] exacerbate this danger, allowing the shooter to fire more bullets without stopping to reload. Cf. Heller II, 670 F.3d at 1264 (noting that "the 2 or 3 second pause during which a criminal reloads his firearm can be of critical benefit to law enforcement" (internal quotation marks omitted)). It is, therefore, not surprising that AR-15s equipped with LCMs have been the weapons of choice in many of the deadliest mass shootings in recent history, including horrific events in Pittsburgh (2018), Parkland (2018), Las Vegas (2017), Sutherland Springs (2017), Orlando (2016), Newtown (2012), and Aurora (2012).
The court concluded:
Here, the Massachusetts legislature's conclusion that the Commonwealth's legitimate interests are best served by proscribing semiautomatic assault weapons and LCMs rests on substantial (although not incontrovertible) evidence regarding the inordinate dangers associated with the proscribed weapons. What is more, it strains credulity to argue that the fit between the Act and the asserted governmental interest is unreasonable. As we have said, the Act does not outlaw all semiautomatic firearms and magazines. Nor does it circumscribe in any way the fundamental right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to possess handguns in their homes for self-defense. Accordingly, we hold that although the Act may well "touch the right to keep and bear arms," Miller, 307 U.S. at 182, it does not impermissibly intrude upon that right because it withstands intermediate scrutiny. ...
This case concerns an issue of paramount importance. In the wake of increasingly frequent acts of mass violence committed with semiautomatic assault weapons and LCMs, the interests of state and local governments in regulating the possession and use of such weapons are entitled to great weight. Even so, we recognize that such interests must be balanced against the time-honored right of individuals to bear arms in self-defense — a right that is protected in varying degrees by the Second Amendment. Holding this delicate balance steady and true is difficult but necessary work. Here, we find that even if the Act implicates the core of the Second Amendment right, it (at most) minimally burdens that right. Consequently, we are obliged to cede some degree of deference to the decision of the Massachusetts legislature about how best to regulate the possession and use of the proscribed weapons.