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. ⤴︎

Draper v. Healey: Supporting Massachusetts’ Life-Saving Handgun Design Safety Standards

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Case Information: Draper v. Healey, No. 14-12471 (1st Cir. Brief Filed Jan. 29, 2016)

At Issue: This case involves a Second Amendment challenge to several handgun design safety regulations in Massachusetts, including a requirement that handguns be equipped with a “load indicator” so that users will know when a bullet is in the firing chamber. The challenged regulations were upheld in their entirety by the district court and the case is now on appeal with the First Circuit.

The Law Center’s Brief:  Our brief argues that the challenged regulations are “presumptively lawful” conditions on the commercial sale of firearms (a category expressly recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court), which fall entirely outside the scope of the Second Amendment. We also explain the importance of design safety standards when it comes to preventing the thousands of unintentional shootings that occur in America every single year. Even if the challenged regulations do burden the Second Amendment, they easily satisfy intermediate scrutiny as they are substantially related to the important government interest of protecting public safety by reducing unintentional shootings. 

Read the full text of our amicus brief here.

Watson v. Lynch: The Second Amendment Does Not Protect the Possession of Machine Guns

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Case Information: Watson v. Lynch, No. 15-2859 (3d Cir. Brief Filed Jan. 28, 2016)

At Issue: This case involves a Second Amendment challenge to federal laws that generally prohibit the private possession of machine guns manufactured after May 19, 1986. The district court ruled that the challenged laws do not violate the Second Amendment, and the case is now on appeal before the Third Circuit.

The Law Center’s Brief: Our brief focuses on the argument that machine guns are not protected firearms under the Second Amendment. We explain to the Third Circuit that machine guns are outside the scope of the Second Amendment for at least two distinct reasons: 1) machine guns easily qualify as “dangerous and unusual” weapons under Heller; and 2) the machine gun ban qualifies as a “longstanding” prohibition. Our brief establishes that these categories are best understood as categorical exceptions to the Second Amendment right and therefore fall outside of its scope entirely. Finally, the brief traces both the historical origins and ongoing success of machine gun regulation in America.

Read the full text of our amicus brief here.

Federal Court Upholds All Aspects of California’s Unsafe Handgun Act

 

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Chalk up another win for California’s common sense gun laws. Last week, US District Judge Kimberly Mueller ruled that the state’s groundbreaking Unsafe Handgun Act (“UHA”) is constitutional, a major victory for gun safety proponents. The UHA, originally passed in 1999, requires all handguns sold in the state to meet rigorous safety standards, which reduce the number of “junk guns” on the market. All new handguns must pass firing and drop testing, utilize a ”chamber load” indicator, and incorporate microstamping technology—a unique code imprinted on a casing when a handgun is fired, which helps law enforcement solve gun crimes.

A number of individual gun owners and pro-gun organizations filed the lawsuit in 2009, arguing that the UHA interfered with their right to own any handgun, regardless of quality. In her decision, Judge Mueller pointed out that the UHA merely “imposes conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms,” which the US Supreme Court specifically identified as a “presumptively lawful” regulation in its landmark Heller decision. With this in mind, Judge Mueller found that the UHA “does not adversely impact the access to and sale of firearms” and forcefully concluded that “[t]his degree of regulation is negligible and does not burden plaintiffs’ rights under the Second Amendment.”

Plaintiffs have already filed an appeal to the Ninth Circuit, where the Law Center plans to file an amicus brief in support of the law. As Judge Mueller correctly found, the right to bear arms does not include the right to purchase poorly made, low-quality guns that do not meet common sense safety standards. We hope you’ll join us in the fight to defend the UHA, a key component of California’s intelligent approach to gun violence prevention. Smart gun laws like the UHA have helped decrease firearm homicide rates in California more than 64 percent since the mid-1990s, and positioned California as a model for other states when it comes to combating the public health crisis of gun violence in the United States.

District Court Strikes Down Washington, D.C. Ban on Public Carrying of Handguns

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For many years, the District of Columbia prohibited individuals from carrying handguns in public in order to protect District residents and visitors from gun violence. On July 26, 2014, however, a trial court judge interpreted the Second Amendment to allow individuals to carry guns outside of the home, and struck down the District’s policy. The judge’s ruling in the case, Palmer v. District of Columbia, allows residents and non-residents alike to carry handguns1. Fortunately,The ruling has been stayed for 90 days to allow the District to appeal the decision, or institute a licensing scheme that regulates the carrying of guns in public.

By far the most litigated Second Amendment issue since the Supreme Court’s controversial 2008 decision in Heller v. District of Columbia—which found that law-abiding, responsible individuals have a right to own an operable handgun for self-defense in the home—is whether the Second Amendment also protects a right to carry a firearm outside the home.2  As the Palmer court recognized, the Supreme Court has not yet ruled on this issue3, while a significant number of lower courts have concluded that the Second Amendment only protects the right to possess a gun for self-defense in the home. Nonetheless, since Heller, emboldened gun-lobby groups and individual plaintiffs have brought an onslaught of cases challenging laws that regulate a person’s ability to carry a gun outside of the home.

As of 2012, the only two jurisdictions prohibiting the practice of possessing guns outside the home were Washington, D.C. and Illinois. Illinois’ law was struck down in 2012 on Second Amendment grounds by the Seventh Circuit in Moore v. Madigan.4  The Moore court made clear, however, that laws regulating the possession of guns outside the home are permissible and the court suggested that regulations granting law enforcement discretion to issue concealed carry permits would be constitutional.

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Notes
  1. 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101945. The Palmer court held that the District cannot prohibit non-residents from carrying firearms in the District solely because they are not District residents. The court reasoned that non-residents also have a Second Amendment right to carry guns outside the home for self-defense. However, in Peterson v. Martinez, 707 F.3d 1197, 1202 (10th Cir. 2013), the Tenth Circuit upheld Colorado’s law limiting concealed carry permits to Colorado residents. The court found the residency requirement to be constitutional and substantially related to the important government interest of protecting public safety. And in Dearth v. Holder, 641 F.3d 499, 500-501 (D.C. Cir. 2011), the District of Columbia Circuit Court also upheld a federal law requiring a gun purchaser to be a U.S. resident. ⤴︎
  2. 554 U.S. 570, 626 (2008). ⤴︎
  3. Without Supreme Court precedent on this issue, the Palmer decision relied heavily on a radical and extreme 2-1 decision by the Ninth Circuit in Peruta v. County of San Diego, 742 F.3d 1144 (9th Cir. 2014). In Peruta, a panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals considered whether a person’s generalized desire to carry a gun in public for self-defense qualifies as “good cause” for the issuance of concealed carry permits. San Diego’s policy was not to issue concealed carry permits unless the applicant could demonstrate a particularized need beyond a generalized desire for self-defense. The divided panel held that San Diego’s application of the good cause requirement violated the Second Amendment. The State of California has sought to intervene in the case and requested en banc review from a full Ninth Circuit panel of judges, which may result in the overturning of the original decision. Additionally, the Palmer court based its decision on Moore v. Madigan 708 F.3d 901, 903 (7th Cir. Ill. 2013). ⤴︎
  4. 708 F.3d 901, 903 (7th Cir. Ill. 2013). ⤴︎

Law Center and Attorney General Harris Defend California Law in Pivotal Ninth Circuit Concealed Weapon Case

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A radical Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision earlier this month put one of California’s key laws in jeopardy. In that case, two conservative judges issued a decision that could potentially undermine a decades old law allowing law enforcement to have discretion over who is allowed to carry a hidden, loaded gun in public. Today, California Attorney General Kamala Harris filed a request that the Ninth Circuit reconsider the case in front of an en banc panel of judges.

The law at issue here allows law enforcement to issue a permit to carry a hidden, loaded gun in public if the applicant can demonstrate “good cause” for receiving a permit. This type of system is commonly called a “may issue” permitting system and is not uncommon in other states across the country. In Peruta v. County of San Diegotwo judges on a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit decided that California’s good cause requirement must be interpreted to allow anyone who claims a general desire for personal self-defense in public to be issued a permit, contrary to three other circuits’ decisions on this issue.

Given that this decision guts a critical piece of California law regarding guns in public, it is no surprise that the Attorney General has decided to get involved in the case and request an en banc rehearing. Today, the Law Center—which also filed an amicus brief in front of the original three judge panel—filed an amicus brief that supports the Attorney General’s request. Our brief argues that the Peruta decision is a dramatic departure from other courts’ analysis of this issue. In fact, cases challenging similar “may issue” systems in New York, Maryland, and New Jersey have been rejected by three different federal appellate courts.

The briefs filed by the Law Center, Attorney General Harris, and other organizations send a clear message to the Ninth Circuit to stop this radical decision by two judges which could overturn decades of California law that helps law enforcement prevent gun violence. This unprecedented ruling starkly departs from other courts’ interpretations of the Second Amendment by failing to consider the public safety benefits of granting law enforcement discretion in deciding who should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon and by failing to recognize the well-established history of regulating guns in public.  Courts that have taken those considerations into account have all upheld these critical laws.

Read the full text of our amicus brief here. Continue reading

Extreme Ninth Circuit Concealed Weapon Decision Out Of Sync With Other Courts

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California has some of the strongest gun laws in the nation and these strong laws have had a significant role in keeping Californians safe. Over the past twenty years, California’s gun laws have contributed to a significant—56%—drop in California’s gun death rate. However, a radical Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision has put one of the state’s key laws in jeopardy. Yesterday, two conservative judges issued a decision that could potentially undermine a decades old law allowing law enforcement to have discretion over who is allowed to carry a hidden, loaded gun in public.

This law, like laws in several other states across the country, only allows law enforcement to issue a permit to carry a concealed loaded gun in public if the applicant can demonstrate “good cause” for the issuance of a permit—commonly called a “may issue” permitting system.

In California, counties can define “good cause” differently, and many require applicants to show that they are at a special risk of being targeted by criminals that is greater than the general population in order to demonstrate “good cause.” In this case, Peruta v. County of San Diego, the plaintiffs claim that the Second Amendment requires counties to issue permits to anyone who applies who claims a general need for self-defense, regardless of whether they have a special risk.

Since the controversial 2008 Supreme Court decision District of Columbia v. Heller, the gun lobby has flooded the courts with similar claims, which have nearly all been rejected. In fact, cases challenging similar “may issue” systems in New York, Maryland, and New Jersey have been rejected by three different federal appellate courts. In yesterday’s decision, however, two judges on a three judge panel of the Ninth Circuit decided that California’s good cause requirement must be interpreted to allow anyone who claims a general desire for personal self-defense in public to be issued a permit, contrary to other circuits’ decisions on this issue.

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Amicus Brief in Challenge to Connecticut’s Assault Weapons Ban

Connecticut State Capitol Building

Case information: Shew, et al. v. Malloy, et al., No. 13-00739 (D. Conn., complaint filed May 22, 2013)

At Issue: Challenging the constitutionality of Connecticut’s Post-Newtown Assault Weapon and Large Capacity Magazine Ban This lawsuit, filed by a gun lobby group and a few individuals, challenges the Gun Violence Prevention and Children’s Safety Act (“the Act”), which was passed in direct response to the tragic elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut.  The shooter at Newtown used an assault weapon and multiple large capacity magazines to kill 26 people, including 20 children, in just five minutes.  The Act strengthened Connecticut’s ban on these dangerous weapons by–among other things–broadening the definition of an assault weapon to include guns with characteristics that enable the firing of hundreds of bullets per minute, aid in the commission of mass murders and assaults, or facilitate the weapon’s concealment.  The Act also banned the possession of large capacity ammunition magazines, which allow mass shooters to file dozens and dozens of bullets without pausing to reload.  This lawsuit makes the radical claim that the Second Amendment protects a “right” to own assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines and that Connecticut’s laws regulating these dangerous weapons (including the Act) are unconstitutional.

The Law Center’s Brief: Our brief, joined by Connecticut Against Gun ViolenceMoms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and Cleveland School Remembers, argues that the Second Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court and other courts, does not protect a right to own weapons that are designed for a battlefield and have no connection to lawful self-defense in the home.  Indeed, every court to have considered challenges to laws banning assault weapons or high capacity magazines since the Supreme Court’s decisions in Heller and McDonald has upheld those laws, including the conservative D.C. Circuit.  The Law Center recently filed a similar brief in a case challenging New York’s assault weapon and large capacity ammunition magazine ban.

Download a copy of the brief here.

Amicus Briefs: Bringing Our Expertise to the Courts

Over the past four years, our nation’s courts have become a major battleground in the debate about gun violence in our communities. Right now, people who want to carry loaded firearms on public streets are forcing judges across the country to question the scope of the Second Amendment. But where should judges turn for guidance in evaluating these claims? The Supreme Court’s landmark Heller decision in 2008 effectively upended the legal understanding of the Second Amendment that had existed for almost eighty years. When it comes to gun litigation, courts are now having to evaluate how to keep our communities safe with little Second Amendment case law to guide them.

The Law Center is helping to fill that void through amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in significant Second Amendment cases across the country. Because we are the only organization in the country that tracks Second Amendment litigation, national, state, and local firearms laws, and pending firearms legislation nationwide, we have unique expertise that can help courts understand the critical importance of smart laws to prevent gun violence. Through amicus briefs, we can present that expertise to courts shaping the meaning of the Second Amendment.

Amicus briefs enable us to get involved in precedent-setting cases that have nationwide significance, since numerous challenges to similar gun laws are currently pending before courts across the country. We recently filed an amicus brief in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Hightower v. Boston, in which we argued that a Massachusetts law requiring a license to carry a concealed weapon in public does not violate the Second Amendment. When the court issued its decision upholding the law on August 30th, it became the first federal appellate court in the nation to issue a decision on a Second Amendment challenge to a concealed carry law. Six other federal appellate courts are currently facing similar challenges.  Continue reading

District of Columbia Circuit Court Rejects Second Amendment Challenge to Comprehensive District of Columbia Laws

WHAT HAPPENED?
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (striking down the District’s decades-old ban on handgun possession and storage requirement), a flood of litigants have attempted to expand the limited right to self-defense in the home provided by the Heller Court.  After the District of Columbia repealed the laws struck down in Heller, the District, with help from the Law Center, enacted a set of firearms laws that are among the strongest in the nation.  The lead Heller plaintiff immediately challenged the laws.
HOW SAFETY WINS
The Circuit Court upheld important firearms and ammunition safety laws.  In October 2011, the D.C. Circuit Court held that D.C.’s assault weapon ban, large capacity ammunition magazine ban, and handgun registration requirement are consistent with the Second Amendment, District of Columbia v. Heller2011 U.S. App. LEXIS 20130. For more information about the nationwide trend rejecting expansion of the basic right to a handgun in the home for self-defense, see the Law Center’s latest Post-Heller Litigation Summary.