Supreme Court Stays on the Sidelines in Gun Debate

Assault weapons bans allowed to stand in New York and Connecticut

The Supreme Court has declined to take up a challenge to assault weapons bans in two states. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The Supreme Court has declined to take up a challenge to assault weapons bans in two states. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted June 20, 2016 at 11:45am

As the debate over gun control laws continues to roil the nation and Congress, the Supreme Court on Monday again decided to stay on the sidelines.  

The justices announced they won’t hear a major challenge to state gun control laws enacted in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, continuing a five-year trend of avoiding such cases.  

A gun rights group had appealed an October decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit that upheld core provisions of New York and Connecticut bans on certain semi-automatic weapons and restrictions on bullet magazines. The case could have given the Supreme Court a chance to issue a ruling with a nationwide sweep on gun control legislation.  

The justices met behind closed doors Thursday to discuss whether to take the case. They voted not to hear the case at about the time Congress was scheduling votes on four gun-related amendments, following a filibuster on the issue by Democratic Sen. Christopher S. Murphy  of Connecticut where the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting killed 20 children and six adults.  

The justices’ announcement is just one line in an order, and without additional explanation as to the court’s reasoning.  The decision comes on the heels of the attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando on June 12 that authorities say left 49 people dead and 53 injured — the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The announcement   

The Supreme Court’s action in the case wasn’t surprising, and is another in a line of decisions dashing the hopes of people on both sides of the gun control debate. The Supreme Court hasn’t decided a major case since 2010 on how much lawmakers can limit the Second Amendment’s right to own firearms — leaving states, localities and Congress free to act.  

The court has never decided a case about a ban on assault weapons or limits to the number of bullets a magazine can hold. The federal assault weapons ban, enacted in 1994, drew legal challenges, but its demise was political when Congress declined to renew it after 10 years.  

The appeal in the current case — June Shew, et al. v. Dannel P. Malloy, Governor of Connecticut, et al. — focused only on the New York and Connecticut bans on certain semi-automatic weapons. Those firearms are popular with gun owners in America but have also been used in the Orlando attack and other recent mass shootings.  

The 2nd Circuit concluded that “New York and Connecticut have adequately established a substantial relationship between the prohibition of both semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines and the important — indeed compelling — state interest in controlling crime.”  

The appeals court ruling said the law was specifically targeted to stop mass shootings such as the Sandy Hook attack.  

In December, the justices declined to hear a high-profile case over an Illinois town’s ban of certain types of guns and bullet magazines. That decision was announced just five days after a married couple opened fire on an office party in San Bernardino, California, killing 14.  

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