Assault Weapons

On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act, which prohibits civilian possession of assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines. Sitting en banc, the full Fourth Circuit declared that because these military-style weapons and accessories are most useful for killing enemies on the battlefield, not everyday self-defense, they do not fall under the purview of the Second Amendment. This is the fifth time a federal appeals court has upheld a state assault weapons ban, but it is the first time a court has definitively ruled that military-style assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines are not protected by the Second Amendment. This ruling sets an important precedent for public safety, and we applaud the judges of the Fourth Circuit for this outcome.

Dangerous military-style firearms and deadly accessories like large capacity ammunition magazines are often the weapon of choice for mass shooters looking to inflict the most possible carnage before they have to reload. Specifically, the AR-15—a civilian version of the US military’s M-16 rifle—and similar assault weapons were used in the horrific massacres in Newtown, Aurora, San Bernardino, and Orlando. The Maryland legislature passed the Firearm Safety Act after 20 first graders and six educators were killed with an AR-15 Bushmaster at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012. But the gun lobby soon challenged Maryland’s law on constitutional grounds, speciously claiming that the Second Amendment precludes passage of a law designed to protect the public from mass shootings committed with military-style weapons.

The litigation experts at the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence teamed up with Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence and the law firm of Katten Muchin Rosenman to file an amicus brief in this critical case. Our brief argued that the Supreme Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision specifically supports reasonable gun regulations, including restrictions on assault weapons and other “dangerous and unusual” firearms. The Heller decision, which recognized the right of law-abiding, responsible people to keep a handgun in the home for self-defense, made clear that the Second Amendment does not designate a “right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose”—allowing for smart gun laws like the one upheld by the Fourth Circuit this week.

In fact, Justice Scalia’s majority opinion in Heller made clear that the Second Amendment right “extends only to certain types of weapons,” meaning states can lawfully prohibit dangerous weapons that would be “most useful in military service.” The Fourth Circuit followed this reasoning exactly—the decision reads, “Put simply, we have no power to extend Second Amendment protection to the weapons of war that the Heller decision explicitly excluded from such coverage.” The Fourth Circuit’s en banc opinion is another emphatic defeat for the gun lobby, which continues to lose case after case—judges have ruled on the side of public safety in 94 percent of Second Amendment challenges brought since Heller.

Read the Law Center’s brief defending Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act.