Andrew Turner suffers from partial paralysis in his dominant hand, the legacy of an injury to his right arm while on active duty in the Navy – which is why, according to court papers, the Maryland resident needs a semiautomatic gun to defend himself.
The state’s 2013 Firearm Safety Act, however, bars the sale of semiautomatic rifles like the popular AR-15 and AK-47, and sets a 10-round limit on magazines. The law could be at the center of the next big precedent-setting gun case if the Supreme Court takes up a challenge from Turner and others.
“We are hopeful that the Supreme Court will reverse this egregious decision,” Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement.
The Maryland law is one of a host of gun control measures passed in the wake of the 2012 Newtown, Conn., elementary school massacre – and, if taken up, the case could have sweeping implications for like-minded states in the gun control debate.
Jay Porter, an attorney for the plaintiffs, complained about a patchwork of rulings in the wake of the landmark 2008 Heller decision upholding the individual’s right to own a gun. He called on the Supreme Court to clear up the confusion.
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“We would like to see a reversal in the trend of the lower courts,” Porter said. “At best, there is a lot of confusion in the lower courts about the Second Amendment. At worst, lower courts are ignoring and resisting the Heller decision because they didn’t like the outcome. That resistance needs to be mediated.”
In response to Newtown, 21 states passed some type of new gun control laws in 2013, according to a joint report by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence and the Brady Campaign. Most didn’t deal directly with buying or owning a firearm, but rather with background checks, record-keeping rules for gun dealers and other factors.
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An AR-15 sits on a display case at the "Ready Gunner" gun store in Provo, Utah, in this June 21, 2016 file photo. (Reuters)
However, four states—California, Connecticut, Maryland and New York—passed or strengthened bans on semiautomatic weapons in 2013. Those same four states, as well as Colorado, passed or strengthened bans on high-capacity ammunition magazines.
They were able to do so, in spite of the Heller decision, because of an interpretation that the 2008 ruling dealt largely with handguns, giving them leeway to restrict what critics call “assault rifles.”
Until a court rules otherwise, this might be the last type of existing legal gun ban.
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But Turner, of Hyattsville, and lead plaintiff Stephen Kolbe of Towson, Md., along with gun stores and gun-rights groups, are suing to overturn the Maryland law. They are specifically disputing a lower court ruling that said the Second Amendment doesn’t apply to these guns.
“Maryland has banned the most popular semiautomatic rifles and magazines—arms that are indisputably in common use for self-defense—from the homes of its law-abiding citizens,” the plaintiffs’ petition said.
Maryland’s law was upheld in federal district court. Then a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond ruled 2-1 the law wasn’t constitutional.
When Maryland appealed the decision to the full appeals court, a 10-4 majority determined, “[W]e have no power to extend Second Amendment protection to the weapons of war that the Heller decision explicitly excluded from such coverage.”
The opinion went on to state, “At the same time, according to the state’s evidence, the FSA-banned assault weapons have been used disproportionately to their ownership in mass shootings and the murders of law enforcement officers.”
In July, the plaintiffs appealed their case to the Supreme Court.
Their petition noted that a 1989 report by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, or ATF, described semiautomatic rifles as suitable for self-defense.
“Heller struck down a prohibition on the firearms most commonly chosen for self-defense—handguns—even though handguns are arguably more ‘dangerous’ than other firearms, and even though firearms other than handguns remained available for use in self-defense,” the petition continued. “This court recognized and protected the principle at the heart of the interests enshrined by the Second Amendment: The individual – and not the government – retains the right to choose from among common arms those that they believe will best protect their person, family, and home.”
For his part, Kolbe, a small business owner, first bought a semiautomatic handgun after an employee’s boyfriend threatened to kill her at work and police did not respond for 30 minutes, according to court documents.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office declined to weigh in on whether the Supreme Court would accept the case. “The court has not even decided to take the case at this point and our office does not want to get into speculation on consequences, particularly since this is ongoing litigation,” Frosh spokeswoman Raquel Coombs told Fox News in an email.
After the 4th Circuit upheld the law in February, Frosh heralded the ruling.
“It is unthinkable that these weapons of war, weapons that caused the carnage in Newtown and in other communities across the country, would be protected by the Second Amendment,” Frosh said in a February statement.
Other states are watching the case closely.
Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming all filed amicus briefs on behalf of the plaintiffs. Meanwhile, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Oregon, New York and the District of Columbia filed briefs on behalf of Maryland.
The NRA also is backing the legal effort.
“Lower courts have been making up their own rules when it comes to the Second Amendment for too long, and the Kolbe decision crossed yet another line,” Cox said in a statement.