Protecting Strong Gun Laws: The Supreme Court Leaves Lower Court Victories Untouched

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In the last eight years, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected more than 70 cases seeking to expand the very limited right defined in the unprecedented Second Amendment case, District of Columbia v. Heller. By repeatedly declining to review lower court decisions upholding federal, state, and local gun laws, the Supreme Court has maintained important limitations on the Second Amendment and has reconfirmed that the Amendment is not an obstacle to smart gun laws that keep our communities safe from gun violence.

Since the Court’s decision in the Heller case 2008, lower courts across the country have been inundated with costly and time-consuming challenges to state and local gun laws.  However, lower courts have consistently upheld these laws, noting that many of these laws have been successful at protecting people from gun violence and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals while still allowing law-abiding citizens to keep guns in their homes for self defense.  Since 2008, there have been over 1,090 Second Amendment cases challenging gun laws nationwide, with an overwhelming majority—94%—of the lower court decisions upholding those laws.

Many of these Second Amendment challenges to gun laws make their way to the Supreme Court.  However, the Court has refused to hear these cases,1 leaving lower court decisions upholding the laws intact and keeping strong gun laws on the books.  For example, the Supreme Court has refused to hear cases that:

Notes
  1. In 2010, the Court decided McDonald v. City of Chicago, which held that the right recognized in Heller extends to state and local governments.  That case involved a Chicago law nearly identical to the one struck down in Heller and did not expand the substantive scope of the Second Amendment.

Gov. Jerry Brown Signs Six Smart Gun Laws in California

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This year, the California Legislature introduced a record number of gun safety bills. We’re thrilled to report that Governor Brown has signed six of these lifesaving measures into law.

Today’s news represents a tremendous step in the right direction, as California has long led the nation when it comes to enacting smart gun laws–we rank the state first in our annual Gun Law State Scorecard for consistently adopting bold new solutions to save lives from the epidemic of gun violence.

The bills Governor Brown signed will promote public safety by strengthening the state’s assault weapon ban to prohibit the sale of “bullet-button” rifles like the ones used in last year’s deadly massacre in San Bernardino, requiring background checks on ammunition purchasers, and prohibiting the possession of large capacity ammunition magazines

We’re proud to have testified in support these bills as they made their way through the statehouse and are delighted that Governor Brown signed them into law. These new pieces of legislation add to the unprecedented momentum for commonsense gun safety policies we’ve seen at the state level in recent years, and we’re as committed as ever to the fight for public safety in our home state.

But there’s still more work to be done, and we’re confident that by continuing to work with our powerful legislative coalition partners and our supporters, we can bring California’s pioneering gun laws to all 50 states.

 

To read more about California’s smart gun laws, see our policy page.

To see how your state stacks up when it comes to commonsense gun safety laws, see our Gun Law State Scorecard.

The Deadliest Shooting in American History

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Terror tore through an Orlando nightclub early Sunday morning. A gunman, motivated by hate and enabled by all-too easy access to deadly, military-style weapons killed at least 50 and wounded another 53 in the deadliest mass shooting in US history. This was not a record we wanted to break.

The attack specifically targeted the LGBTQ community in Orlando, and the shooter reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in a 911 call. As the story continues to develop, one fact becomes clearer and clearer: it’s far too easy for dangerous people—whether they’re terrorists, bigots, domestic abusers, or dangerously mentally ill—to get their hands on guns. And when that happens, innocent people die.

It’s been almost a year since Charleston. Three years since Newtown. Five since Tucson. Nine since Virginia Tech. Seventeen since Columbine. Twenty-three since 101 California, the mass shooting that inspired the Law Center’s founding.

It’s long past time for Congress to listen to its constituents and fix the broken policies—like the gun show loophole and the terror gap—that we know will help prevent shootings.

And if our federal leaders won’t listen, we need to enact better legislation at the state level, especially in Florida, which has some of the weakest gun laws in the country and receives an F on our Gun Law State Scorecard. Not only does Florida not require background checks on private gun sales or prohibit assault weapons like the one used in the Orlando shooting, it specifically has a law forbidding doctors from talking to their patients about gun safety. It’s time to bring some sanity to the Sunshine State and pass the smart gun laws that have been proven over and over again to save lives.

Our hearts go out to the victims of the Orlando shooting, the LGBTQ community, and the more than 117,000 Americans shot every year. This is a sad day in the United States. All of us here at the Law Center vow to turn this pain into action and redouble our efforts fighting for a rational, commonsense approach to American gun laws.

To see how states rank when it comes to smart gun laws, check out the 2015 Gun Law State Scorecard.

To learn more about Florida’s gun laws, see our policy page. 

Extremism Leaves a Nation on Edge


Yesterday, the United States suffered yet another mass shooting—our 355th of the year. Fourteen were killed and 21 injured after two shooters rampaged through the Inland Regional Center in San Bernadino, California. Reports are emerging that the suspects were radicalized and have links to known terrorists.

Just days before, a Colorado Springs shopping center and Planned Parenthood fell under siege as a man radically opposed to abortion engaged in an hours-long standoff with law enforcement, killing three and injuring nine others with a semiautomatic rifle.

Four men have been charged in the November 23 shooting at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis, wounding five—an incident which authorities believe was racially motivated.

We need reform at the state and federal levels. We’re tired of our lawmakers offering their thoughts and prayers—those won’t stop the next mass shooter, or any of the 88 gun deaths we average per day. We’re ready for swift and decisive action to stop the 117,000 shootings the United States sees each year. And we know you are too. Our executive director, Robyn Thomas, wrote this op-ed for the Daily Dot on just how ready the American public is for the smart gun laws that will save lives.

…Action is needed. We are collectively answerable to the victims of gun violence and to an ever-growing community of grieving family members for the policies our leaders enact, or fail to enact, to protect our communities. We need to do more than just tweet sympathy—we need to force our leaders to pass the smart gun laws that the research has proven again and again save lives.

Polls have repeatedly shown that the American public is in broad agreement about what must be done to prevent gun violence. Over 90 percent of Americans support closing the loophole that allows felons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill to buy guns without a background check. Yet, thanks to pressure from the gun lobby, Congress has failed to act…

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While these shooters were all motivated by different factors and separated by hundreds of miles, a common thread ties the incidents together: it’s all too easy for extremists, zealots, and bigots to get their hands on deadly weapons when the impulse to inflict harm became too powerful to resist.

Read the full text of Robyn’s op-ed

For more information on California’s gun laws, see our policy page.

For more information on how your state stacks up when it comes to smart gun laws, see our annual Gun Law State Scorecard.

 

 

Closing the Terror Gap in American Gun Laws

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Last week, the world watched in horror as Paris came under attack–129 killed in coordinated mass shootings and bombings across the city. Our hearts are with the victims, their families, and those who survived the attack, and we stand with the people of the world in calling for an end to the kind of senseless violence that terrorized Paris and the global community this weekend.

As gun law experts, we know universal background checks and more effective mental health screenings will help prevent many of the headline-grabbing shootings we’ve seen in the last several years—these are effective, powerful ways to curb gun violence in our communities. But, it’s also important that we consider our nation’s security in the aftermath of the Paris attacks by looking at gaps in our gun laws–specifically concerning acts of terrorism.

One such weakness, the “terror gap,” persists because a hole in federal legislation does not bar those on the terrorist watchlist from purchasing firearms. Unlike felons, the dangerously mentally ill, and certain drug abusers, federal law does not prohibit known or suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. Though 82% of NRA members and 86% of non-NRA gun owners support such legislation, only one state (New Jersey in 2013) has taken appropriate steps to address the terror gap. This failure to act has resulted in drastic consequences:

To be clear, Friday’s attacks were not the result of weak national gun laws; with some of the most progressive gun laws in the world, France’s annual death rate from firearms is drastically lower than that of the United States. But illegal trafficking from nearby countries increases the availability of deadly weapons and makes it easier for terrorists to carry out acts of violence.

Within our own borders, weak gun laws in most states make it easy for deadly firearms to fall into the wrong hands. And this fact is far from a secret—a senior al-Qaeda leader even lauded how simple it is to obtain firearms in America, releasing a video message to urge followers to buy guns in states without universal background checks.

Acts of terrorism like the ones we witnessed last week and many of the strategies for combatting them are different in kind from the gun violence we see in American communities on a daily basis, but both situations are amplified by overwhelmingly easy access to deadly weapons. Trafficking may be what enables deplorable acts of terrorism like what we saw in Paris, but with effective legislation to close the terror gap, we can take important steps to ensure a safer, more secure environment for everyone.

Victory: Chicago Suburb’s Ban on Deadly Weapons Upheld

In yet another major win for smart gun laws, the Seventh Circuit ruled this week that an ordinance adopted by Highland Park, Illinois, prohibiting assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines (LCAMs) does not violate the Second Amendment.

We were proud to file an amicus brief in the case, Friedman v. City of Highland Park, with the help of Katten Muchin Rosenman LLP, this year’s recipient of the Law Center’s Richard W. Odgers Pro Bono Partner Award. Highlighting the devastating role that assault weapons and large capacity magazines play in mass shootings and other gun crimes, the brief argued that the city’s prohibition on these military-style weapons is consistent with the Second Amendment.

The Law Center was founded in the wake of an assault weapon rampage, where the shooter also used large capacity magazines to kill nine and injure six at a law firm at 101 California Street in San Francisco in 1993. These weapons make it significantly easier for people to shoot more rounds more quickly, increasing the number of victims. Large capacity ammunition magazines are used disproportionately in mass shootings like those in Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, and Virginia Tech.

In a 2–1 decision authored by the prolific appellate judge, Frank Easterbrook, the Seventh Circuit agreed with the Law Center’s assessment of the case. “That laws similar to Highland Park’s reduce the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons is established by data,” Judge Easterbrook wrote. “A ban on assault weapons and large capacity magazines… may reduce the carnage if a mass shooting occurs.”

Also of great importance to the court was the ordinance’s minimal impact on self-defense. “Unlike the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns [at issue in the landmark Heller case], Highland Park’s ordinance leaves residents with many self-defense options.” As a result, the court concluded that the city’s prohibition on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines does not violate the Second Amendment.

This victory yet again demonstrates the unprecedented momentum across the country for common-sense gun laws. The ruling is the second so far this year regarding prohibitions on military-style weapons, following the Ninth Circuit’s recent ruling upholding a Sunnyvale, CA, ban on possessing large capacity magazines. Several similar cases are currently pending in federal appellate courts across the country, including the Second, Fourth, and Tenth Circuits. The Law Center filed amicus briefs in each of these cases as part of our commitment to fight for smart gun laws that will save countless lives. We expect positive outcomes in these cases–stand with us in the fight for safer communities for everyone and become a member today.

Learn more about large capacity ammunition magazines and the dangers of assault weapons by visiting our policy page.

 

Wal-Mart v. Trinity Wall Street: Amicus Brief in Support of Shareholder Proposal Requiring Wal-Mart to Consider the Public Safety Implications of Selling Assault Rifles

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Case Information: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Trinity Wall Street, No. 14-4764 (3d Cir. Filed Feb. 11, 2015)

At Issue: Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, sells AR-15s and other similar assault rifles, which come equipped with high capacity magazines. The Trinity shareholder proposal at issue in this case would obligate the Wal-Mart Board to oversee the creation and implementation of standards for when to sell products raising public safety and other specified concerns. The proposal was motivated in part by the tragic shooting at Newtown and Trinity’s resultant desire to see Wal-Mart exercise more oversight of products with special business risks, including assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. While the resolution would not ban the sale of any product, it would require Wal-Mart to at least consider the implications of selling assault rifles equipped with high-capacity magazines. The district court ruled that the proposal could not be excluded from proxy materials sent by Wal-Mart to its shareholders for their consideration. Wal-Mart appealed this decision to the Third Circuit.

The Law Center’s Brief: The amicus brief supports Trinity by arguing that the district court’s opinion is consistent with SEC rules and guidance regarding the submission of shareholder proposals, and the District Court properly concluded that the Trinity proposal involves a significant policy issue appropriate for shareholder consideration. The brief emphasizes that, among the hundreds of thousands of items Wal-Mart sells, assault rifles and high-capacity magazines stand apart because of their capacity to kill large numbers of people in a very short period of time. On average, shooters who use assault weapons or large capacity magazines in mass shootings shoot 151% more people and kill 63% more people than those who do not.

Read the full text of our amicus brief here.

Tracking State Gun Laws: 2014 Developments

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In April of this year, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal signed HB 60, a bill which expands the ability to carry firearms in public spaces such as bars and airports. The media was quick to report that this bill is evidence of a backlash against the many significant gun violence prevention laws enacted in the states last year, despite the media’s predominant narrative from last year that, after Newtown, more states weakened gun laws and the gun lobby “won”. The truth is that the recent media narratives are far from accurate.

Since Newtown, about the same number of laws (64) have strengthened state gun regulations as those that have weakened them (70), not including 38 newly-enacted gun laws that have a minimal impact on gun violence. However, a strict comparison of these numbers without deeper insight into the substance of the laws and where they were enacted is only half the story. Of the states that enacted laws to strengthen gun regulation, 8 states made very significant and, in some cases, sweeping changes to the way it regulates firearms. Alternatively, only 4 states enacted laws that have significantly weakened gun regulation.

Despite popular belief, in the last sixteen months since Newtown, the media has incorrectly portrayed the complicated and nuanced activity in fifty different state legislative bodies. The new laws have been tallied, and often, have been inappropriately equalized. Small bills which keep concealed weapons permit holders’ information private have been categorized as having equal weight to sweeping new laws that require background checks and ban assault weapons. The stories proclaiming the Georgia bill to be a pro-gun backlash make little of the fact that it was the NRA’s top priority in Georgia for two years and, after failing last year, barely scraped by this year and only in a watered-down version. The backlash stories also fail to mention the groundswell of activism that rose in opposition to the bill and succeeded in forcing the gun lobby to strip provision after provision from the measure.

The Law Center has tracked state firearms laws in all fifty states since 2009. Above is a map outlining the breadth of laws that have passed since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Our analysis of legislative trends is based on watching and analyzing all gun legislation as it moves through state houses. The data shows us that the public’s mobilization after Newtown resulted in real and sustained change in legislative outcomes, as our team tracks new laws to strengthen gun policy come to unexpected states like South Carolina and Florida while an enormous number of bills to weaken state gun laws get watered down and end without progress.

In addition, a Mother Jones analysis comparing the population of states where gun laws were strengthened to states where they were weakened concluded that more than half of the country lives in states with stronger gun laws since Newtown.

More important than the numbers, or even the context surrounding the numbers, are the real people who have dedicated their lives to changing our nation’s gun laws since Newtown. New organizations such as Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise, and Texas Gun Sense and many, many more have formed in just the last sixteen months. Real change happens when real people take action. The story after Newtown is that in every state people are making their voices heard, fighting to strengthen firearms laws, and opposing the gun lobby’s profit-driven efforts. This part of the story is only just beginning and real change will be measured in the lives that are saved.

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In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary tragedy, there is no doubt that public support for sensible gun laws has soared. Many legislators are following the lead of the people and fighting for strong new policies to fill the gaps in gun regulation left by Congress. Continue reading

Victory in the Courts: Connecticut Post-Newtown Gun Law Upheld By Federal District Court

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The people of Connecticut know first-hand how gun violence can devastate a community. They watched in horror when a shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School used assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines to kill 26 people — including 20 small children. Within months, the Connecticut legislature took immediate action to try to prevent such a tragedy from happening again by passing a law that strengthens the state’s prohibition on assault weapons and bans large capacity ammunition magazines.

In what has become a pattern when they fail to stop laws they don’t like in the political process, the gun lobby filed a lawsuit right after this law was passed, alleging that the law violates the Second Amendment.1 Yesterday, Connecticut’s new gun law was upheld by a federal district court in a victory for smart gun laws that could have reverberations nationwide.

The Law Center and several of our allies supported the defense in this case by filing an amicus brief that argued that the law does not violate the Second Amendment and that the regulation of these military-style weapons is a reasonable public safety measure.

In yesterday’s decision, the court upheld the law in its entirety and rejected the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment challenge. Although the court did find that the law imposed some burden on the plaintiffs’ Second Amendment rights, the court held that the law left open many other kinds of firearms and magazine the plaintiffs could use for self-defense.  Thus, the court found that since the law was reasonably related to the state’s interest in public safety and protecting law enforcement, it was constitutional.

The court’s rejection of the gun lobby’s extreme arguments in this case echos a similar decision in New York last month upholding that state’s ban on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines.  These cases represent major victories because similar lawsuits are pending across the country, including in California, Colorado, Illinois, and Maryland, as part of a concerted effort by the gun lobby to bully state and local governments into not passing these critical public safety laws.

For more, read some of the recent gun violence prevention success stories.

Notes
  1. The plaintiffs also alleged the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and was unconstitutionally vague.  The court rejected both of those arguments.

Victory in the Courts: New York’s New Gun Law Largely Upheld By Federal District Judge

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2013 began with New York passing a comprehensive upgrade of its already strong gun laws in response to the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  And, a few days ago, 2013 ended with an incredible victory for smart gun laws, as a federal court largely upheld New York’s new law and rejected a lawsuit from the gun lobby.

The NY Secure Ammunition & Firearms Enforcement Act (known as the “NY SAFE Act”), strengthened many aspects of New York’s gun laws, including its bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines.  The gun lobby predictably responded to their own failure to stop this law in the legislature with a lawsuit against the state of New York alleging–among other things–that the bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines violate the Second Amendment.  The Law Center and our allies responded by filing an amicus brief supporting the law and arguing that the law is consistent with the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

In a decision released just last week, the court agreed, and upheld the ban on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines.  After citing conflicting evidence, the court declined to decide whether assault weapons or large capacity ammunition magazines are in “common use,” a gun-lobby argument that claims that because assault weapons and large capacity magazines are allegedly prevalent that they are therefore protected by the Second Amendment under the Heller decision.  Instead, the court found that, whether or not these weapons are in common use, bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines don’t prohibit gun owners from exercising their Second Amendment rights.  The court went on to hold that the bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines were reasonably related to the state’s interest in protecting public safety given the widespread use of these weapons and magazines in mass shootings. Thus, the court upheld these restrictions.

Although the court did strike down a part of New York’s new gun safety law which prohibited a gun owner from loading more than seven rounds into a magazine at one time, the court’s rejection of the gun lobby’s main claims and their radical theories about the Second Amendment’s scope is a great victory for advocates of smart gun laws, that will surely have reverberations in similar cases pending in Connecticut, Maryland, Colorado, and California.1

For more, read some of the recent gun violence prevention success stories.

 

Notes
  1. The court also rejected most of the plaintiffs’ other challenges to the law, including claims that several provisions of the law were overly vague. However, it did strike down a provision banning semi-automatic rifles with “muzzle breaks” as overly vague since the legislation inadvertently failed to use the correct term, “muzzle brake.” A muzzle brake helps to prevent recoil and upward movement of the barrel of a gun during rapid fire. The court also struck down a provision prohibiting semi-automatic handguns that are “semi-automatic versions” of fully automatic firearms because it did not give sufficient notice of what specific kinds of guns were prohibited.