With the ink barely dry on Connecticut’s new gun law, several gun rights groups have announced plans explore legal challenges to the new restrictions.
Flanked by families of some of those murdered at a Newtown elementary school in December, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed into law the state’s bipartisan gun violence prevention legislation at a ceremony Thursday afternoon in the state Capitol.
The bill, which the General Assembly passed early Thursday morning after more than 13 hours of debate, expands the number of firearms prohibited in Connecticut, bans the sale of ammunition magazines that carry more than 10 rounds, and imposes new eligibility requirements for the purchases of all guns and ammunition. It also creates the first statewide gun offender registry.
“We can never undo the senseless tragedy that took place on Dec. 14 or those tragedies that play themselves out on a daily basis in our cities, but we can take action here in Connecticut and we can make Connecticut towns and cities safer. And this bill does that,” Malloy said.
Second Amendment advocates lobbied heavily against the bill throughout its legislative process. When Malloy signed it into law, several groups released statements announcing their intention to challenge the new law on constitutional grounds.
Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, announced his group’s plans to hold a rally at the state Capitol on April 20 to “regroup and renew efforts to challenge this new law.”
“The Connecticut Citizens Defense League stand united with the gun owners of our state, and pledge our resolve to correct this legislative travesty through litigation, or any legal avenue available,” Wilson said.
The National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun industry trade association based in Newtown, issued a statement alleging there would be unintended consequences to the bill and questioning the state’s public policy.
“We will be carefully studying all provisions of the law for possible challenge in the courts,” the group said.
Attorney General George Jepsen, who as a lawmaker helped pass the state’s 1993 assault weapons ban, said he did not think legal challenges to the law would be successful.
“It is my belief that this important legislation will withstand a court challenge, and my office is prepared to vigorously defend the law, should any court action be filed challenging its constitutionality,” he said.
George Mocsary, a visiting law professor at the University of Connecticut and co-author of Firearms Law & the Second Amendment, said some provisions of the bill “clearly don’t pass [constitutional] muster.”
Mocsary pointed to the provision involving the state’s assault weapons ban, which he said would not pass even the lowest level of constitutional scrutiny.
The state’s existing assault weapons ban specifically prohibited 66 weapons and banned any others that failed a “physical characteristics test.” Under the old law, that test outlawed any weapon with two or more “military-style features.” Those features could include things like a pistol grip on a semi automatic rifle, a flash suppressor, or a telescoping stock.
The new law adds about 100 guns to the specifically-banned list of 66 and amends the “physical characteristic test” so a gun with just one military-style feature would be considered an assault weapon. The expanded definition of assault weapon includes the AR-15 style weapon Adam Lanza, the gunman in Newtown, used to murder 26 people.
Mocsary said the constitutional scrutiny the U.S. Supreme Court has applied to gun control cases have required that governments have at least a rational reason for imposing new firearm restrictions. He said Connecticut’s classification of some weapons as assault rifles—both under existing law and the new law—would fail constitutional muster because they are arbitrary in that they are based on cosmetic appearance.
He used the pistol grip feature as an example of a cosmetic feature:
“It doesn’t affect the functionality. They are no more or less deadly because of a pistol grip,” he said. “There isn’t even a rational basis for banning these weapons. Some people might say because they look scary, but is that how we do things in America?”
Michael Lawlor, Malloy’s undersecretary for criminal justice policy, defended the new law, saying the broadened definition of assault weapons was not arbitrary.
“There’s something unique about these weapons. They’re lightweight, designed for military purposes, and can fire a lot of bullets very quickly,” he said.
Lawlor said in the years since the federal assault weapons ban expired, AR-15 style weapons have become popular and mass shootings have increased at about the same rate as their circulation.
“The Adam Lanzas of the world pick this weapon,” he said.
Lawlor predicted that challenges to the law would fail. He said Connecticut’s Supreme Court upheld its existing assault weapons ban in a unanimous decision in 1995.
Mocsary said lower courts have been reluctant to strike down firearm regulations. He said that is partly because plaintiffs in legal challenges to gun laws are often criminals. Another factor has been regional differences in federal circuit courts.
Connecticut is part of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which also includes New York and Vermont. Mocsary said judges in the Northeast are less likely to declare gun regulations unconstitutional than their counterparts in other regions.
“Given that Connecticut is in the Second Circuit, I think it’s far less likely the law would be struck down at that level,” he said.