While it’s not a done deal yet, there’s a good chance that we may finally be receiving a final decision from the Supreme Court on the question of so called “assault weapons” bans. Back in December, gun rights activists were largely disappointed when SCOTUS decided they would not hear an appeal to Illinois’ assault weapons ban, allowing a lower court ruling in favor of the law to stand. At the time, I speculated that they were waiting for more lower courts to weigh in on similar challenges around the country to see if there was some sort of consensus or if the states were divided and in need of clarification from above.
This week that question may have been answered. The 4th Circuit, hearing a Maryland case, went the other way, overturning a ban on AR-15 style rifles and expanded capacity magazines. (Baltimore Sun)
In a 2-1 decision applauded by gun rights advocates, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit concluded that the semiautomatic weapons and high-capacity magazines banned by Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act “are in common use by law-abiding citizens.” As a result, they don’t fall under the exception to the right to bear arms that applies to “unusual” weapons such as machine guns and hand grenades, the court said.
This apparent contradiction between the 7th Circuit Court’s ruling in Friedman v. City of Highland Park and the 4th’s ruling in Maryland has likely provided enough contrast for the Supremes to take up the question. This, as you might imagine, has liberal gun rights opponents in a state of panic, as a ruling agreeing with the rationale cited by the 4th Circuit Court would essentially kill off any similar rifle bans around the nation. That sense of distress shows up in this piece from Dahlia Lithwick at Slate. (Emphasis added)
The ruling sets the wheels in motion for another major gun fight at the high court. It will now likely have to answer this question: In a country where one bloody massacre seems to follow another, and 33,636 people were killed by firearms in 2013, does the court want to be in the business of handing out AR-15s like so much Halloween candy?
Maryland’s Firearm Safety Act was passed along with a raft of similar gun control measures in other states in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre in December 2012. Twenty children and six adult staff members were killed in that massacre by a gunman using three semi-automatic firearms. Among other things, the Maryland statute banned possession of firearms designated as “assault weapons,” including AR-15s and AK-47s. Maryland also banned sales and purchases of ammunition magazines of more than 10 rounds.
The court hasn’t given a final ruling on “assault weapons” but they have provided some limits to Second Amendment rights in the Heller decision when it comes to “unusual” weapons. The original candidate for that classification was the short barrel (or sawed off) shotgun, but it also included weapons of war such as grenades and rocket launchers. The 4th circuit has wisely recognized that a semi-automatic rifle – particularly one already owned by tens of millions of Americans who break no laws with them – are hardly unusual. And as we’ve discussed in the past, not only is the typical AR-15 with a .223 round a relatively underpowered varmint rifle, it’s rarely used in homicides. The Slate author is quick to note Hillary Clinton’s favorite talking point about 33 thousand people killed by firearms, but purposely ignores the specifics when it comes to the rifles under discussion. Roughly two thirds of those firearms deaths were suicides, but of the 8, 124 homicides committed in 2014 using firearms, the FBI reminds us that the number killed by rifles of any sort was a pittance.
Yes, you read that correctly. In 2014 the total number of murders committed with rifles was 248 out of more than 8,000. And that’s rifles of all types. The FBI doesn’t break it down to specific models, so that figure includes all manner of hunting rifles, including bolt action models and others. The actual number of killings done with AR-15 style rifles is more likely in the dozens. If the Supreme Court chooses to hold to their own previously stated standards, the term “assault rifle” should be done away with entirely and these weapons should be looped in with the rest of the firearms in widespread, legal, safe use.