The Supreme Court declined Monday to review bans on a lengthy list of firearms that New York and Connecticut have classified as “assault weapons,” the latest example of the justices turning down an opportunity to elaborate on an individual’s right to gun ownership.
With an emotional debate about gun control reigniting across the street at the Capitol, the justices without comment said they would not review lower-court decisions upholding the laws.
Connecticut’s ban was expanded shortly after a gunman used one of the military-style semiautomatic weapons on the list to kill 20 students and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown in 2012.
The decision Monday was not a surprise, as the justices have previously declined to review other lower-court decisions that uphold bans passed by cities and states. Maryland, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New, Jersey as well as many cities and towns, have similar laws. None of the legal challenges to them have been successful in lower courts.
These prohibitions were enacted after a federal ban expired in 2004. Attempts to revive the federal ban have failed, although advocates are trying in the wake of the massacre at an Orlando nightclub that left 49 victims dead.
Like other laws, Connecticut’s ban includes semiautomatic guns and high-capacity magazines, covers popular weapons such as AR-15s and AK-47s, and names more than 180 weapons that cannot be sold.
But the individuals and organizations challenging the law said the state is an “outlier” in banning weapons that are popular and protected in the rest of the country.
“In truth, the odd assortment of firearms Connecticut calls ‘assault weapons’ are mechanically identical to any other semiautomatic firearm — arms that, as no one disputes, are exceedingly common and fully protected by the Second Amendment,” the challengers said in their petition to the court.
Gun rights advocates have urged the court to review such bans, saying that they violate the court’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which said individuals have a right to gun ownership for self-protection.
After recognizing the individual right for the first time in Heller, which covered the federal enclave of the District, the court made clear in a subsequent case that state and local governments, like Congress, could not prohibit individual gun ownership.
But the court has not shown any interest since then in elaborating on what exactly that right covers. And in the process, the justices have passed up the chance to scrutinize lower-court decisions that have upheld the laws banning certain weapons as well as laws requiring tight restrictions on those who can legally carry guns outside their homes.
When the Supreme Court declined last December to review a lower-court decision upholding such a ban, Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia wrote that a similar law flouts the court’s Second Amendment jurisprudence. Scalia died in February.
They criticized lower-court decisions that have allowed jurisdictions to impose what Thomas called “categorical bans on firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes.”
The lower court said the legislators in Connecticut were justified in banning the weapons.
The justices turned down a separate petition challenging New York’s law. The full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond is currently considering Maryland’s ban. At oral argument, the case seemed likely to follow the pattern set by other appeals courts, including the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which in October 2015 reviewed and let stand the bans in New York and Connecticut.
“Because the prohibitions are substantially related to the important governmental interests of public safety and crime reduction, they pass constitutional muster,” a unanimous panel of that court decided.