A federal judge in Hartford Thursday dismissed a constitutional challenge to the sweeping gun-control legislation passed in Connecticut after the Sandy Hook School massacre.
Gun owners challenged the law on several fronts, including what the state called "an absolutist" Second Amendment claim that the possession of types of semiautomatic rifles and large-capacity magazines banned under the law was a constitutionally guaranteed right.
"The court concludes that the legislation is constitutional," wrote Senior U.S. District Judge Alfred V. Covello. "While the act burdens the plaintiffs' Second Amendment rights, it is substantially related to the important governmental interest of public safety and crime control."
Covello, a former state Supreme Court justice appointed to the federal bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, also rejected claims that the law violated equal-protection rights and that it was impermissibly vague.
"With respect to the equal protection cause of action, while the legislation does not treat all persons the same, it does not treat similarly situated persons disparately," the judge wrote. "Finally, while several provisions of the legislation are not written with the utmost clarity, they are not impermissibly vague in all of their applications and, therefore, the challenged portions of the legislation are not unconstitutionally vague."
Covello declined an invitation by gun owners to further define the reach of the Heller decision, the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 ruling that struck down a complete ban on handguns in Washington, D.C., and affirmed a constitutional right to own firearms.
"Second Amendment jurisprudence is currently evolving, and the case law is sparse," Covello wrote. He noted that the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals has since recognized that Heller "raises more questions than it answers."
Covello said that gun owners met one legal burden, proving that the Connecticut law banned firearms in "common use," one of the standards established by Heller.
The AR-15, one of the banned weapons, is among the most popular rifles in the U.S., and large-capacity magazines are common as well. Adam Lanza used an AR-15 legally purchased by his mother and large-capacity magazines to kill 20 first-grade students and six educators at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown on Dec. 14, 2012.
But the judge wrote that the plaintiffs failed to convince him that restrictions on firearms must meet a higher level of scrutiny than a general governmental interest in preserving public safety. Heller guaranteed that individuals cannot be disarmed, not that guns cannot be regulated, he said.
The Connecticut law, he said, "does not effectively disarm individuals or substantially affect their ability to defend themselves.”
The law banned the retail sale of military-style semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity magazines and required registration of such weapons purchased before the ban. Universal background checks are required for all firearms purchases.
"Connecticut has carried its burden of showing a substantial relationship between the ban of certain semiautomatic firearms and LCMs [large-capacity magazines] and the important governmental 'objectives of protecting police officers and controlling crime.' ” Covello wrote. "The relationship need not fit perfectly. Obviously, the court cannot foretell how successful the legislation will be in preventing crime. Nevertheless, for the purposes of the court's inquiry here, Connecticut, in passing the legislation, has drawn reasonable inferences from substantial evidence."
Gun owners promised to appeal.
"We have nearly 12,000 members and plaintiffs involved in the case that are prepared to go the distance and see it through," said Scott Wilson, the president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League. "We believe we’re ultimately in the right.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who strongly backed passage of the law and publicly signed it soon after passage, said the decision was correct.
“The court made the right decision today. The common-sense measures we enacted last session will make our state safer, and I am grateful for the court’s seal of approval," Malloy said. “Let’s not forget that this has happened before. In prior instances when Connecticut has passed related firearms laws, there have been similar challenges and they have all been unsuccessful.”
Ron Pinciaro, the executive director of Connecticut Against Gun Violence, had a similar reaction.
"We are heartened by Judge Covello’s ruling that has reaffirmed consistent rulings in other jurisdictions that banning military style assault weapons in the interest of public safety does not constitute an infringement of Second Amendment rights,” he said.
The state's first attempt to ban firearms defined by the legislature as semi-automatic assault weapons was personally defended 20 years ago in Superior Court by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who was then the state attorney general.
The court upheld the law.