RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Maryland’s assault weapons ban implicates its citizens’ core Second Amendment rights and must be reviewed under a more rigorous judicial standard than the one used by a judge who upheld the law’s constitutionality, a divided federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake for further proceedings, giving the gun-rights supporters who challenged the law another chance to argue it should be overturned.
“This is not a finding that Maryland’s law is unconstitutional,” Judge William B. Traxler Jr. wrote. “It is simply a ruling that the test of its constitutionality is different from that used by the district court.”
State lawmakers passed the sweeping Firearms Safety Act after the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. Gun-rights advocates went along with most of the law but challenged the provision banning 45 assault weapons, and the 10-round limit on gun magazines.
“The Maryland Firearm Safety Act is a common-sense law designed to reduce gun violence and make our communities safer,” state Attorney General Brian E. Frosh said in a written statement after the appeals court’s ruling. “It remains the law in Maryland.”
Nevertheless, the ruling was a setback for the state. Frosh said he will appeal the ruling either to the full federal appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court.
John P. Sweeney, attorney for the plaintiffs, declined to comment, but a National Rifle Association official declared the ruling “an important victory for the Second Amendment.”
“Maryland’s ban on commonly owned firearms and magazines clearly violates our fundamental, individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense,” said Chris W. Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action. “The highest level of judicial scrutiny should apply when governments try to restrict our Second Amendment freedoms.”
Blake examined the law under a standard known as “intermediate scrutiny,” which tests whether a law furthers an important government interest in a way that is substantially related to that interest. The appeals court said the proper standard is “strict scrutiny,” which requires a law to be narrowly tailored and the least restrictive means to further a compelling government interest.
The appeals court said Maryland’s law affects the constitutional right to possess firearms for self-defense and home protection by banning virtually an entire class of weapons commonly owned by law-abiding citizens. In 2012, the number of semi-automatic rifles manufactured and imported into the United States — and banned by the Maryland law — was more than double the number of Ford F-150 trucks sold, the appeals court said.
Also, more than 75 million high-capacity magazines are in circulation, the court said.
The appeals court also rejected the state’s claims that the banned weapons fall outside the Second Amendment because they are “unusually dangerous,” and because and there is no evidence those weapons have actually been used for self-defense. The court said it doesn’t matter how often the weapons are used — only that they are widely possessed, just in case they are needed — and that the Supreme Court has never suggested that Second Amendment challenges require a test of whether a gun is unusually dangerous.
Blake deemed semi-automatic weapons too dangerous because of their destructive force and their use in mass shootings, but “if the proper judicial standard is to go by total murders committed, then handguns should be considered far more dangerous than semi-automatic rifles,” the appeals court said.
The court’s majority acknowledged that other appeals courts have examined gun laws similar to Maryland’s under intermediate scrutiny but said it was not persuaded by any of those rulings. Judge Robert King wrote in a dissenting opinion that the majority was wrong.
“Let’s be real: The assault weapons banned by Maryland’s FSA are exceptionally lethal weapons of war,” King wrote.
“To put it mildly, it troubles me that, by imprudently and unnecessarily breaking from our sister courts of appeals and ordering strict scrutiny here, we are impeding Maryland’s and others’ reasonable efforts to prevent the next Newtown — or Virginia Tech, or Bingamton, or Fort Hood, or Tucson, or Aurora, or Oak Creek, or San Bernardino,” he wrote.
King and Judge Steve Agee, who joined in the majority opinion, said the implication that they would bear some responsibility for future mass shootings has “no place in judicial opinions.”
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