Suit was filed over state’s response to Pulse club shooting
Gun-rights group claimed the 1998 ban was unconstitutional
Massachusetts’ ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines doesn’t violate the Second Amendment of the Constitution, a U.S. judge ruled, handing a victory to gun-control advocates seeking to pass such a law nationwide as deadly mass shootings become commonplace.
"The AR-15 and its analogs, along with large capacity magazines, are simply not weapons within the original meaning of the individual constitutional right to ‘bear arms,’" U.S. District Judge William Young wrote in a decision Thursday in Boston, dismissing a lawsuit over the state law.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey was sued by a gun-rights group in response to her July 2016 decision to broaden the definition of “copies or duplicates" of AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles that are prohibited under the state’s 1998 assault-weapon bans.
“These are weapons of war that belong on the battlefield, and we were pleased today to see yet another court agree with that stance,” Kris Brown, co-president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which wasn’t involved in the case, said in a statement.
Gun litigation has taken on a new urgency following the Feb. 14 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, where 17 people were left dead. Survivors mobilized on social media and successfully pushed for a new gun-control law in Florida, which triggered a lawsuit by the National Rifle Association. The law raised the age to purchase a gun to 21 from 18. The U.S. Supreme Court in November left intact a ruling that upheld Maryland’s ban on assault weapons.
Healey beefed up enforcement after the June 2016 shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, where 49 people were killed by a gunman brandishing a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic pistol. Healey said the decision vindicates the right of people to protect themselves.
"Strong gun laws save lives, and we will not be intimidated by the gun lobby in our efforts to end the sale of assault weapons and protect our communities and schools," Healey said in a statement. "Families across the country should take heart in this victory.”
James Campbell, the lawyer for plaintiffs including the Gun Owners’ Action League Inc., didn’t return a call for comment on the ruling.
The term “assault weapons” is non-technical and "entirely fabricated" to politicize the most popular types of guns in the U.S., according to the gun owners’ complaint.
"Healey unilaterally decreed that thousands of Massachusetts residents are suddenly criminals simply for having exercised their Second Amendment rights," the plaintiffs said.
Young, nominated by former President Ronald Reagan, backed his decision by quoting the late conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in a 2008 decision that overturned Washington’s ban on hand guns. The landmark ruling expanded individual gun rights but said the right isn’t unlimited.
"Weapons that are most useful in military service — M-16 rifles and the like" aren’t protected by the Second Amendment and "may be banned," Young quoted Scalia as saying, referring to the automatic rifle popular with the military. The AR-15 is similar to an M-16, Young said.
Young also rejected attempts by the gun-rights group to challenge the ban on the grounds that AR-15s are extremely popular in the U.S.
"The AR-15’s present day popularity is not constitutionally material," Young said.
The NRA said it’s “extremely disappointed” with the ruling.
“Even more disturbing was Judge Young’s assessment that the ‘AR-15’s present day popularity is not constitutionally material’ and that ‘Justice Scalia would be proud’ of this ruling,” the organization said in a statement.
Young said in his decision that the “raucous" debate around gun policies should be dealt with by elected officials rather than the courts. Seven states and the District of Columbia ban assault rifles or pistols to some extent. A federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004 after a 10-year run.
"In the absence of federal legislation, Massachusetts is free to ban these weapons and large capacity magazines," Young said. "Other states are equally free to leave them unregulated and available to their law-abiding citizens."
The case is Worman v. Baker, 1:17-cv-10107, U.S. District Court, District of Massachusetts (Boston).