WASHINGTON – In a victory for gun-control advocates, the Supreme Court on Monday rejected a 2nd Amendment challenge to laws that forbid the sale or possession of semiautomatic weapons that carry more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
The justices by a 7-2 vote refused to review rulings by judges in Chicago who upheld a ban on assault weapons in the city of Highland Park, Ill., as a reasonable gun-control regulation.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia dissented.
The court’s decision, while not a formal ruling, strongly suggests the justices do not see the 2nd Amendment as protecting a right to own or carry powerful weapons in public. In the court’s only two decisions upholding gun rights, the justices struck down city ordinances in Chicago and Washington, D.C., that prohibited residents from keeping a handgun at home for self-defense.
Since then, the justices have repeatedly refused to hear appeals from gun-rights advocates who have sought to extend the 2nd Amendment right to protect the carrying of weapons in public.
The high court’s action comes at a time of renewed anger and fear over the use of military-style assault weapons in the shootings in San Bernardino, Paris and Colorado Springs.
Advocates of the bans on military-style weapons had pointed to mass shootings before this year and argued these rapid-fire rifles and handguns posed a special danger to public safety.
Several cities in the Chicago area as well as California and seven other states have adopted laws similar to the Highland Park ordinance.
The justices meeting in their private weekly conferences had considered the gun-rights appeal over two months during a time when the mass shootings had highlighted again the devastating impact of rapid-fire weapons. In the eyes of some, those shootings also demonstrated the limited effectiveness of such gun-control measures, since France and the state of California have strict regulations on the sale of such weapons.
But in the end, the court decided against hearing the appeal, which has the effect of upholding the laws in Highland Park and elsewhere.
In dissent in Friedman vs. City of Highland Park, Thomas said the decison upholds “categorical bans on firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes . . If broad bans on firearms can be upheld based on the conjecture that the public might feel safer (while being no safer at all), then the 2nd Amendment guarantees nothing.”
Thomas also says the decision has the effect of “relegating the 2nd Amendment to a second-class right.”
In addition to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, the federal appeals courts in San Francisco and New York have also upheld laws restricting rapid-fire weapons and rejected challenges based on the 2nd Amendment.
After Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago, adopted its ban on semiautomatic weapons in 2013, Dr. Arie Friedman and the Illinois State Rifle Association filed suit and contended the measure was unconstitutional. They argued the weapons affected, including the AR-15, were among the most popular guns sold in this country.
“The millions of Americans who use such ‘assault weapons’ use them for the same lawful purposes as any other type of lawful firearm: hunting, recreational shooting and self-defense,” they argued in court papers.
But a federal judge upheld the law, and the 7th Circuit Court did the same in a 2-1 decision in April. Judge Frank Easterbrook said the courts should defer to city and state officials who seek to protect the public’s safety. “Assault weapons with large-capacity magazines can fire more shots, faster and thus can be more dangerous in the aggregate,” he said. “Why else are they the weapons of choice in mass shootings?”
Friedman filed an appeal with the high court in July, which won the backing of the National Rifle Association and the state attorneys from 23 mostly Republican-led states.
In addition to California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and New York have similar laws restricting the sale of rapid-fire weapons which carry 10 or more rounds of ammunition.
Had the high court struck down the Highland Park ordinance, its decision would likely have voided all the state laws as well.
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