Gun Advocates Rejected by Supreme Court on Assault Weapons

Updated on
  • Justices won't question Chicago suburb's ban on some guns
  • Top court avoids the intensifying debate over gun control

How Will San Bernardino Affect Gun Control Debate?

A divided U.S. Supreme Court steered clear of the politically charged fight over gun rights, turning away a challenge to a law banning semi-automatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines in a Chicago suburb.

The justices left intact a federal appeals court decision that said the Highland Park, Illinois, restrictions don’t infringe on the constitutional right to bear arms. The appeals court said residents have plenty of legal self-defense options, including handguns and other types of long guns.

The gun-control debate has intensified in recent months amid a series of mass shootings, including the Dec. 2 terrorist assault that killed 14 people at a social services center in San Bernardino, California. Had the high court taken up the Highland Park case, the justices would have issued their ruling next year in the heat of the presidential campaign.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas voted to hear the case, and Thomas said that 5 million Americans own the type of weapons banned by the law.

"The overwhelming majority of citizens who own and use such rifles do so for lawful purposes, including self-defense and target shooting," Thomas said for the pair.

Gun-rights advocates have repeatedly tried and failed in recent years to get the high court to expand protections under the Second Amendment. The court hasn’t ruled in a gun-rights case since 2010.

‘Massive Resistance’

Seven states and the District of Columbia ban assault rifles and high-capacity magazines, as do New York City and San Francisco. About a quarter of the U.S. population lives in areas that have banned assault weapons, Highland Park said in court papers. Federal courts have consistently upheld those laws.

A federal ban on assault weapons expired in 2004, and Republicans in Congress have blocked attempts to reinstate it.

In an address to the nation Sunday night, President Barack Obama said the country must "make it harder for people to buy powerful assault weapons like the ones that were used in San Bernardino.”

While law enforcement and intelligence agencies can’t possibly identify every would-be mass shooter, “what we can do -- and must do -- is make it harder for them to kill,” Obama said.

Rifle Association

A Highland Park resident and the Illinois State Rifle Association challenged the city’s 2013 law. They argued in their appeal that lower courts are engaging in "massive resistance" to the 2008 Supreme Court ruling that said the Constitution protects individual gun rights.

"In the seven years since that opinion was handed down, the lower courts have assiduously worked to sap it of any real meaning," the appeal argued. "They have upheld severe restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms that would be unthinkable in the context of any other constitutional right."

Among the weapons banned by Highland Park is the popular AR-15 military-style rifle. The city prohibits magazines that hold more than 10 rounds. It enacted the ordinance in response to mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado; Newtown, Connecticut; Tucson, Arizona; and Santa Barbara, California.

Mass shootings "occur too frequently in the United States," the city argued. "It is reasonable for a municipality susceptible to such events to want to avoid even a single one."

David Thompson, the lead lawyer for the challengers, said they were "disappointed that the court declined to review a gun ban that covers the most popular firearms in America, including those with many safety-enhancing features."

The case is Friedman v. City of Highland Park, 15-133.

(Updates with Obama comments starting in ninth paragraph, reaction in 16th.)
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