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    Wednesday, December 07, 2022

    Connecticut's sensible, constitutional gun law

    Gun-rights proponents seem to be itching for a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court and its conservative block with the expectation that the court will strike down the ban Connecticut placed on the sale and ownership of assault weapons, following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

    Watch out what you wish for.

    It could well be that Connecticut’s gun laws end up being the test case that the court uses to find such reforms constitutional, providing a blueprint for other states and, if the political will can ever be found, for enactment of federal restrictions.

    On Monday, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling 3-0 in Shews v. Malloy, upheld Connecticut’s assault-weapons ban and prohibition on large-capacity ammunition magazines. Led by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy — who had assumed the painful responsibility of informing parents that their children had died in the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School — Connecticut passed tough but sensible gun legislation in 2013.

    A heavily armed gunman killed 20 first-graders and six adult educators at Sandy Hook.

    The Connecticut legislation stiffened the definition of an assault weapon. With bipartisan backing, lawmakers banned the semiautomatic Bushmaster AR-15 rifle, the model used in the shooting. The legislature also voted to ban large-capacity magazines such as the type that allowed the killer to keep firing. Connecticut imposed a 10-round limit on the size of ammunition magazines.

    Now illegal in Connecticut are semiautomatic firearms with military-style features, with 200 weapons listed by make and model, but with the ban also covering copycat models of such guns.

    A coalition of gun advocates claimed the legislation violated the “right of the people to keep and bear arms” outlined in the Second Amendment.

    The federal appeal’s court disagreed, and in doing so pointed to the 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Columbia v. Heller that struck down a Washington, D.C. ban on handguns. The court split 5-4 in that case.

    In Heller, the high court found the handgun ban unconstitutional, in part, because it prohibited an entire class of firearms “typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.”

    Conversely, the Connecticut and New York (which passed similar legislation) laws “ban only a limited subset of semiautomatic firearms, which contain one or more enumerated military style features,” the Circuit Court found. The limited ban is not arbitrary, but rather “related to the important governmental interests of public safety and crime reduction” and therefore “passes constitutional muster,” the court ruled.

    Those counting on the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse this decision if the case reaches it, should perhaps read Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in Columbia v. Heller more carefully.

    “Like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited,” wrote Justice Scalia. And while the Heller case found a constitutional right to bear arms for individual self-defense, Justice Scalia noted that the case did not establish “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any way whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

    Justice Scalia, a constitutional originalist, points to “support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons."

    Given Justice Scalia’s stated opposition to judicial activism, it is hard to envision him voting to strike down a Connecticut (or New York) law that defines “dangerous and unusual weapons” as including semiautomatics with military-style features and large-capacity magazines, and substituting his own definition.

    If Justice Scalia, given the chance, votes to uphold the Connecticut and New York laws, which his language in Heller suggests he should, the court would find the laws constitutional.

    “One thing remains clear; Connecticut would be better off if every state and the federal government enacted similar, sensible gun safety rules,” said Gov. Malloy after the recent Circuit Court decision.

    He’s right. And this week’s decision was a step toward an ultimate determination that when others pass such laws, those laws will also be found constitutional.

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