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2nd Cir. Upholds Post-Sandy Hook Semiautomatic Weapons Ban

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

New York and Connecticut gun control laws prohibiting the possession of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines do not violate the Second Amendment, the Second Circuit ruled Monday. The laws were passed following the December, 2012, school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. In the attacks, 20-year-old Adam Lanza used three semiautomatic weapons to kill 20 children and six adults, firing 156 shots in less than five minutes.

The ruling upholds the core provisions of both laws, which were some of the only gun control legislation successfully enacted after the Sandy Hook attacks.

The Response to Sandy Hook

In the year following the Sandy Hook massacre, almost 1,500 state gun bills were introduced in state legislatures. Just 109 of those became law. Almost two thirds of those laws loosened gun restrictions, according to a review by The New York Times. Of the gun control laws that were passed, New York and Connecticut's bills were some of the more ambitious. (California proposed a ban on certain semiautomatic rifles, but those bills were vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown.)

New York's law expanded the definition of prohibited assault weapons, moving from a two-feature to a one-feature test. That is, if any gun had any listed feature, it was considered a prohibited assault weapon. That list includes "military-style" attributes like a telescoping stock, flash suppressor, and grenade launchers. The New York law also banned magazines that can hold more than ten rounds of ammunition and prohibited magazines loaded with more than seven rounds, effectively creating a seven round limit.

The Connecticut law also adopted a one-feature assault weapon test. Further, it listed 183 prohibited assault weapons by make and model.

Are Assault Weapons Protected by the Second Amendment?

Advocacy groups, businesses, and individual gun owners challenged the laws, arguing that they violated the Second Amendment. Though the Supreme Court recognized an individual right to bear arms in D.C. v. Heller, the Second Circuit noted, that right is not unlimited. Only weapons "in common use ... for purposes like self-defense" are protected. Further, Heller endorsed the prohibition of "dangerous and unusual weapons."

Americans own millions of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, the court noted. Even under conservative estimates, there are millions of assault weapons in the country, and tens of millions of large-capacity magazines. They are, then, "in common use," as described in Heller. And, despite the fact that they are often used in gruesome attacks like that at Sandy Hook, the court was unwilling to say that they were inherently "dangerous and unusual." Thus, Second Amendment protections applied to the weapons the laws banned.

Semiautomatic Weapon Ban Survives Intermediate Scrutiny

Those bans, however, did not violate the Second Amendment. The Court engaged in a lengthy discussion of which level of scrutiny applied to such laws that impinged on Second Amendment rights. Certainly, "mere rational basis" was too lax a standard for a rule which substantially burdened constitutional rights. However, strict scrutiny was also inappropriate, since the laws do not ban an entire class of arms or constrain a "core" protection.

Applying intermediate scrutiny, the New York and Connecticut's laws survived review. They were "substantially related to the achievement of an important governmental interest" -- public safety, by banning military-style weapons and keeping particularly hazardous weapons out of the hands of criminals.

Challengers to the law argued that the laws forfeited Second Amendment rights in order to protect against "particularly rare events" like the Sandy Hook massacre. The bans would have only a minimal impact on crime, they argued. That, however, didn't render them unconstitutional. "That may be so," Judge Jose Cabranes wrote for the unanimous panel, but ""gun-control legislation need not strike at all evils at the same time to be constitutional."

A Praised Win, but Not a Total One

But not every aspect of the laws survived. While upholding the main provisions of the laws, the Second Circuit also voided New York's seven round loading prohibition as unconstitutionally vague. Similarly, Connecticut's ban on the Remington 7615 failed, as the gun was not actually a semiautomatic weapon.

Leaders from both states issued statements praising the ruling. Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen described the decision as "deeply gratifying, particularly in light of the terrible events that gave rise to the laws challenged in this case." New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said the ruling was proof that "it is possible to have strong laws that keep our communities safe, while at the same time respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners."

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