A federal appeals court on Monday upheld in large part gun control legislation passed in Connecticut and New York in the wake of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
The ruling dealt a blow to the various gun groups that mounted a constitutional challenge against the laws, which prohibit possession of a number of semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines.
"The core prohibitions by New York and Connecticut of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines do not violate the Second Amendment," wrote Judge José Cabranes for a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which sits in Manhattan.
After delving into a brief history of gun control legislation at the federal level and in the two states -- which have imposed restrictions on automatic and semiautomatic firearms since at least the 1990s -- the court framed the ruling in the tragic events in Newtown.
"On December 14, 2012, a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and murdered twenty first‐graders and six adults using a semiautomatic AR‐15-type rifle with ten large-capacity magazines," the court recounted.
"This appalling attack," it continued, "in addition to other recent mass shootings, provided the immediate impetus for the legislation at issue in this appeal."
Those laws arrived with the 2013 passage of the SAFE Act in New York and a similar law in Connecticut, each with language expanding the definition of "assault weapon" to include any semiautomatic firearm containing at least one of several "military-style features," including grenade launchers and flash suppressors. The Connecticut legislation also specifically banned 183 types of assault weapons by make and model.
A coalition of plaintiffs including gun rights groups, businesses and individual gun owners sued in federal courts in both states to block the implementation of the laws on the grounds that they infringed the Second Amendment and that they were "unconstitutionally vague" -- meaning that their language was too unclear to give gun owners notice of what they criminalize.
Those courts largely ruled against the challengers, who then asked the Second Circuit to give the laws a second look. The court heard arguments in the case in December and on Monday threw out most of the claims.
In reaching its decision, the appeals court noted the "little guidance" the Supreme Court has provided since first ruling for an expanded reading of the Second Amendment in 2008, and went on to apply its own "framework for determining the constitutionality of firearm restrictions."
Specifically, that analysis consists of a two-step test that first determines whether the contested gun regulation "burdens conduct protected by the Second Amendment," and later weighs whether the restrictions "are substantially related ... to the articulated governmental interest" of preventing gun violence and increasing public safety.
Here, the court accepted that the regulations prohibiting semiautomatic weapons and large-capacity magazines represented a "real" burden on citizens' Second Amendment rights, but ultimately didn't think the burden was particularly severe because the laws didn't "effectively disarm individuals or substantially affect their ability to defend themselves."
In light of that determination, the court then looked to and deferred to the various rationales New York and Connecticut offered for their respective gun control bills, including the "unusual risks" posed by semiautomatic assault weapons.
"When used, these weapons tend to result in more numerous wounds, more serious wounds, and more victims," the court said. "These weapons are disproportionately used in crime, and particularly in criminal mass shootings like the attack in Newtown."
As to the ban on large-capacity magazines, the court upheld it by again pointing to Newtown and the shooter's ability to fire "154 rounds in less than five minutes" -- an observation that was in line with the lower court's finding that "large-capacity magazines result in more shots fired, persons wounded, and wounds per victim than do other gun attacks."
In a small nod to gun rights groups, the appellate court did rule that New York's imposition of a seven-round load limit and Connecticut's prohibition on the Remington 7615, a type of non-semiautomatic, "pump action" rifle, were unconstitutional.
In a statement, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) praised the ruling.
"This case validates a simple, fundamental truth about gun control: that it is possible to have strong laws that keep our communities safe, while at the same time respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners," Cuomo said. "New York has set the example – and it’s far past time for Washington to follow suit and pass a sensible national gun control policy."
Tom King, the president of the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, an NRA chapter involved in the lawsuit, told The Buffalo News that he was not surprised by the ruling and is looking forward to the next step.
"The result is really pretty much what we thought was going to happen," he said. "The Second Circuit is not known for being in any way a pro-gun friendly court. We've been saying from day one this is going to be a Supreme Court case."
King may not need to wait much longer. The high court could very soon take action on a closely watched case out of Illinois dealing with a similar ban as those upheld in New York and Connecticut.