The U.S. Supreme Court declined without comment Monday to consider a challenge by Connecticut gun owners to gun controls the state passed in response to the shooting deaths of 26 children and staff at Sandy Hook elementary school by a gunman armed with an AR-15, 30-round magazines and high-powered ammo.
The justices refused to review a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upholding the law, which expanded background checks for the purchases of firearms and ammunition and banned the sale of a list of semi-automatic weapons capable of firing high-powered ammunition from detachable, large-capacity magazines.
The decision was no surprise. After asserting an individual right to own firearms eight years ago in District of Columbia v. Heller, the court has consistently declined to hear cases that could define how far federal, state and local governments can go restricting the sale and ownership of firearms without running afoul of Heller.
But coming a week after the biggest mass shooting in U.S. history, the murders of 49 people at a gay dance club in Orlando, Fla., gun-control proponents are certain to use the court’s decision to bolster their argument that Congress can and should take steps to restrict so-called assault weapons. Sales of the gun used in the the Orlando massacre, a Sig Sauer MCX, are banned in Connecticut.
“Today’s decision by the U.S. Supreme Court isn’t a surprise, but it’s still very important,” said U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who led a filibuster last week protesting congressional inaction on gun control. “It reaffirms what we know is true — that commonsense limitations on weapons of war do not infringe on the constitutional rights of law-abiding gun owners. Connecticut has led the country with our gun safety laws, and now more than ever we should be seen as a model for Congress when it comes to how best to help keep our communities safe from gun violence.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy praised the decision, saying the Connecticut restrictions promoted public safety without impinging on the rights of citizens to purchase and own firearms for sport and self-protection.
“During tragic times, we acted. When we saw wrong, we did what was right. After enduring a moment as a state that shook our collective conscience and jolted the soul, we banded together and stood up for common sense,” Malloy said. “We passed one of the toughest, one of the smartest gun laws in the nation. As today shows, common sense has prevailed.”
Scott Wilson of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, one of the plaintiffs in the legal challenge, said the decision closes all avenues of appeal until the membership of the court changes. Only two members of the court, Clarence Thomas and the late Antonin Scalia, had publicly indicated they believed state bans flouted Heller and the Second Amendment.
“We fully intend to renew our challenge to Connecticut’s blatantly unconstitutional ban as soon as there are five justices sitting on the Supreme Court committed to the proper understanding of the Second Amendment,” Wilson said.
The Connecticut law expands the weapons covered by a 1993 assault-weapons ban, adding the Bushmaster XM15, the variant of the AR-15 used in the attack on Sandy Hook School in Newtown, and dozens of other weapons by name. It also limited ammo magazines to no more than 10 rounds.
But the reach of the law is far greater, covering any semiautomatic center-fire rifle that can accept a detachable magazine and has at least one other characteristic, including the iconic pistol grip of the AR-15.
Those features include a forward pistol grip, a flash suppressor, a grenade or flare launcher or “any grip of the weapon, including a pistol grip, thumbhole stock, or other stock that would allow an individual to grip the weapon, resulting in any finger on the trigger hand in addition to the trigger finger being directly below any portion of the action of the weapon when firing.”
Gunmakers quickly responded with versions that are legal in Connecticut, but they are limited to rimfire ammunition that is less powerful than that the banned centerfire cartridges used at Sandy Hook, where the gunman fired 154 rounds in less than five minutes, killing nearly everyone he hit in a hallway and two classrooms.
“Yes, you can have a cool looking gun, but certainly not the firepower that people would typically look for in home defense,” Wilson said. “It’s a plinker for the target range.”
The law allowed owners of weapons covered by the new law to legally keep them if they obtained a certificate of ownership. It passed with bipartisan support in April 2013, four months after the attack.
In their challenge, gun owners complained the Connecticut law was overly broad in that it banned guns in common use, including the AR-15, one of the most popular firearms in the U.S. As a lead plaintiff, they chose June Shew, an 80-year-old widow and handgun owner.
A federal trial judge, Alfred V. Covello, turned back the first challenge in January 2014 with a decision concluding that the Connecticut ban did indeed burden the constitutional rights of gun owners, but was “substantially related to the important governmental interest of public safety and crime control.”
In October 2014, a three-judge panel of the Second Circuit unanimously upheld Covello and a decision in a case challenging a similar law in New York.
“We hold that the core provisions of the New York and Connecticut laws prohibiting possession of semiautomatic assault weapons and large‐capacity magazines do not violate the Second Amendment, and that the challenged individual provisions are not void for vagueness,” the court concluded in a 57-page decision by Judge Jose Cabranes.
The office of Attorney General George Jepsen urged the Supreme Court to let Cabranes’ decision stand.
“The decision of the Second Circuit faithfully followed the guidance of Heller that ‘the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited’ and that ‘the right was not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose,’ ” his office told the court.
On Monday, Jepsen said, “The Supreme Court’s action today in declining to hear this appeal affirms that the reforms enacted in Connecticut following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School were reasonable, sensible and lawful.
In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 5-4 in District of Columbia v. Heller to strike down a handgun ban in Washington, D.C., asserting for the first time an individual right to own firearms in “common use” for self-defense. But Heller offered minimal guidance over what limitations are constitutional.
Gun owners have been waiting for the court to further define those restrictions, while proponents of gun control say the court’s position is clear enough: “common-sense restrictions,” as Malloy refers to them, are legal.
“We appreciate the Supreme Court’s action today. It should be a demonstration to states across the nation that common-sense gun laws not only work, they’re Constitutional,” Malloy said. “We must stand up against mass shootings. We cannot sit idly by and watch tragedy after tragedy, horror after horror. We have the ability to act – the question is whether or not elected officials have the will.”