The Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to a Chicago suburb’s ban on assault weapons Monday, a move that will encourage gun-control advocates and could frustrate supporters of gun rights.
The city of Highland Park, Illinois, passed the ban in 2013 following a series of mass shooting incidents around the country. The law prohibits the sale, purchase and possession of semi-automatic firearms with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds of ammunition.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, dissented from the denial of the case. Thomas wrote that several Courts of Appeals have upheld “categorical bans on firearms that millions of Americans commonly own for lawful purposes.”
“Because noncompliance with our Second Amendment precedents warrants this Court’s attention as much as any of our precedents, I would grant certiorari in this case,” Thomas wrote. The arguments from the parties in the case reflect the deep divide nationwide between those who are pushing what they consider reasonable restrictions and others who think the lower courts are thumbing their nose at Supreme Court precedent by upholding certain restrictions.
The Supreme Court, by declining to step in, sent a message that it is not going to dive into the current gun debate right now. It will allow the issue to percolate in the lower courts.
In 2008, Scalia wrote the majority opinion in a landmark Second Amendment case called District of Columbia v. Heller, recognizing for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm in the house for self defense.
Gun rights advocates praised the decision, and their foes worried that it would undermine laws across the country.
In large part that has not happened. In fact, gun-control advocates have used Scalia’s own words to stress that, “the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited.”
Lawyers for Highland Park quoted the Heller opinion in their briefs to the court by saying it was not “a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever.” They argued the Highland Park ordinance bans only “highly dangerous weapons,” some of which have been used in a “series of mass shooting events.”
Among those: the Smith & Wesson M&P 15 semi-automatic weapon that was used in a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, as well as the Glock Model 19 9mm semi-automatic pistol that was used in the Tucson, Arizona, attack that killed six people and injured 14 others including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
They argued that more than a quarter of the United States population lives in area that have similar assault weapons bans, including large states such as California and New York, and municipalities including New York City, San Francisco and Cook County Illinois.
“The guns at issue — semi-automatic weapons with military style attributes — were designed to kill in combat, not for self defense,” wrote Christopher B. Wilson, a lawyer for Highland Park. “Bans such as the one imposed by Highland Park on assault weapons and large capacity magazines offer a close fit with the public’s strong interest in public safety and do not unnecessarily burden the rights of individual gun owners,” Wilson wrote.
Adam Winkler, a Second Amendment expert at the UCLA School of Law, says that gun-control supporters are happy to see the court pass on cases like the one brought by Highland Park.
“Gun control has been winning in the lower courts,” he said, “so there’s little for supporters of gun laws to gain.”
Lawyers for Dr. Arie Friedman and the Illinois State Rifle Association, who sought to overturn the Highland Park ban, paint an entirely different picture even as to the definition of the weapons at issue.
“Highland Park’s ban includes some of the most popular firearms in the nation,” David H. Thompson, a lawyer for the challengers, wrote in briefs. He takes issue with the term “assault weapons,” calling that a political term developed by “anti-gun publicists.” He says they are not fully automatic guns that fire repeatedly with a single pull of the trigger, instead they fire only one shot with each pull of the trigger.
“The millions of Americans who own so-called ‘assault weapons’ use them for the same lawful purposes as any other type of firearm: hunting, recreational shooting, and self-defense,” he wrote, adding that the firearms are “almost never used for crime” because criminals “far prefer” ordinary handguns that are easier to carry and conceal.
In urging the Court to take up their appeal, the rifle association said that since the Supreme Court handed down Heller, “lower courts have assiduously worked to sap it of any real meaning” and that the court needs to step in and block some states and jurisdictions who they believe are imposing severe restrictions on Second Amendment rights.
Because lower courts have not split on the issue of assault weapons, Winkler wasn’t surprised that the Supreme Court decided not to step in. He believes that of the numerous challenges in the lower courts the Supreme Court might step in next on the issue of whether the Second Amendment guarantees a right to carry a gun in public.
“This is one of the major unanswered questions about the Second Amendment,” Winkler said, ” a decision could have a broad impact on cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington DC where carrying guns in public is heavily restricted.”