Veteran, paraplegic shooters join gun control lawsuit

A Marine Corps sniper who lost the use of his left arm while serving in Afghanistan and a paraplegic man who hopes to defend himself in the event of a home invasion have joined in a New London-based group's legal challenge of the state's new gun control laws.

The Disabled Americans for Firearms Rights in April filed the first lawsuit challenging gun control measures. Others have brought lawsuits in federal court, but North Stonington attorney Scott D. Camassar, who represents the group, said he thinks this is the only case pending in state court.

The suit claims that the ban on AR-15 type weapons and large capacity magazines is discriminatory against people with disabilities, depriving them of their civil rights and their constitutional right to bear arms. The group's goal is to overturn the law.

"We're not really looking to carve out a special exception for disabled people," Camassar said. "I think if the law is unconstitutional because it has a disparate impact on the disabled, it's unconstitutional for everyone."

Camassar filed statements from disabled shooters with the court this week along with his response to the state's motion to dismiss the case. He said the issues likely would be scheduled for oral arguments in New London Superior Court.

Camassar said retired Marine Corps sniper Jeffrey J. Merli and paraplegic shooter Jonathan Stanco contacted him after reading about the lawsuit and its plaintiff, Scott Ennis of New London. Ennis, a hemophiliac, said that, due to severe joint damage from the disease, he is unable to straighten his arm or rotate his hand under a rifle that does not have a forward grip, such as the ones found on the AR-15 type rifles.

Merli, of East Granby, said he lost the use of his left arm from the elbow down after he was shot three times while deployed as a scout sniper in Afghanistan. He said he suffered a severed artery, shattered bone and major nerve and muscle damage and underwent 13 surgeries.

Merli said he owns a bolt-action rifle that he can fire only from a supported position. He has a semi-automatic pistol but is unable to rack the slide, load it or disassemble it for cleaning. He said he purchased an M4/AR because he can control it in unsupported positions due to the pistol grip and adjustable stock.

"I also prefer the ability to use a 30-round magazine because I'm unable to reload," he said.

Stanco, of Plainville, said that as a paraplegic the
AR-15 is the most suitable for his needs. He said the pistol grip helps him to stabilize and safely and properly hold the firearm and shoot it with accuracy, and the forward vertical grip also promotes stability and accuracy.

"Being confined to a wheelchair limits my ability to retreat or escape in my own house in the event of a home invasion, so I must depend on myself and a suitable defense weapon should the need arise," he said in the affidavit.

The state's motion to dismiss, authored by assistant attorneys general Michael K. Skold, Maura Murphy-Osborne and Perry Zinn Rowthorn, claims sovereign immunity on behalf of the state and says the plaintiffs lack standing to bring the suit.

In his objection to the state's motion, Camassar argues that the group has the standing to bring the lawsuit and that the state is not immune from the constitutional challenge. Knowing the gun debate is a polarizing issue, Camassar said, he tried to be as factual as he could in his brief without degenerating into partisan politics.

"To me it should be an issue that does transcend politics," he said.

The state's motion describes how the General Assembly passed the new laws banning AR-15 type weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines in direct response to the Sandy Hook school shootings.

"During the course of the killing spree, the shooter wielded the Bushmaster assault rifle and its 30-round magazine to expend a staggering 154 rounds in less than five minutes. In doing so, he indiscriminately took the lives of 20 innocent children and six adults," the motion says.

The attorneys general go on to list other mass killings where the shooters used AR-15 type rifles or other guns with a large capacity magazines, including the April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School, the 2011 shooting in Tucson that left six dead and 14 wounded, including U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, and the July 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting,

"In these and numerous other mass murders over the last 30 years, assault weapons and other firearms with large capacity magazines have been the weapon of choice for those intent on killing as many people as possible in the shortest period of time," the state motion says.

Camassar said in his response that sympathy and emotion make for bad legal outcomes.

"However horrifying and terrible was Newtown, the constitution and laws of our state require - and our citizens deserve - more than a knee-jerk, feel good emotional legislative reaction, one that was poorly thought out, not debated, hastily passed and implemented, and which does nothing to keep people safe from homicidal and suicidal sociopaths who perpetrate random acts of violence that were already illegal before the act."

k.florin@theday.com

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