Logic wins out on a Mary­land gun law

The Sec­ond Amendment was never in­tended to al­low ci­ti­zens to bear mil­i­tary-grade weaponry.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

WHEN THE Supreme Court de­clared in 2008 that the Sec­ond Amendment guar­an­tees an in­di­vid­ual right to own guns, the jus­tices were care­ful to as­sure that var­i­ous gun con­trol mea­sures could still pass con­sti­tu­tional muster. For ex­am­ple, the court wrote that “weapons that are most use­ful in mil­i­tary ser­vice — M-16 ri­fles and the like — may be banned.”

Since then, ap­peals courts have had to sort out how that logic ap­plies to spe­cific state-level gun laws. The lat­est is the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the 4th Cir­cuit, which con­sid­ered a chal­lenge to Mary­land’s re­stric­tions on mil­i­tary-style ri­fles — of­ten re­ferred to as as­sault ri­fles — and high-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines. The ap­peals court rightly found that Mary­land’s law is per­fectly rea­son­able — and that the al­ter­na­tive logic dis­senters fa­vored is ex­cep­tion­ally danger­ous.

For all of the ink the court spilled, its de­ci­sion cen­tered on a few ba­sic prin­ci­ples. The ri­fles and mag­a­zines that Mary­land re­stricted are mil­i­tary­grade, bear fea­tures that make them ex­cep­tion­ally deadly and are un­nec­es­sary for self-de­fense.

The court noted that “large-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines en­able shoot­ers to in­flict mass ca­su­al­ties while de­priv­ing vic­tims and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers of op­por­tu­ni­ties to es­cape or over­whelm the shoot­ers while they reload their weapons.” Good guys with large mag­a­zines also may fire many more shots than nec­es­sary, en­dan­ger­ing by­s­tanders. Mil­i­tary-style ri­fles, mean­while, bear a com­bi­na­tion of fea­tures that in­crease their lethal­ity: They fire heavy am­mu­ni­tion; they bear flash sup­pres­sors that can con­ceal a shooter’s lo­ca­tion; they can ac­cept grenade launch­ers, night sights and bay­o­nets.

Through­out, the court could point to a va­ri­ety of spe­cific ex­am­ples of mass shoot­ings, from New­town to San Bernardino to Vir­ginia Tech to Or­lando, in which the de­vices Mary­land’s law reg­u­lates were used. More chil­dren might have es­caped Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School’s class­rooms, for ex­am­ple, if the shooter did not have a 30-round magazine. That the magazine was not even larger than that — some can hold up to 100 rounds — may have saved the lives of nine chil­dren who es­caped as the gun­man reloaded. Given the Supreme Court’s plain lan­guage about M-16s, it is no stretch of logic to find that the Sec­ond Amendment does not pro­tect own­ing these mil­i­tarystyle weapons and ac­cou­trements, or that Mary­land had an in­ter­est in re­strict­ing them.

The court’s dis­senters ar­gued that mil­i­tary-style ri­fles and large-ca­pac­ity mag­a­zines are pop­u­lar tools for self-de­fense and other le­gal ac­tiv­i­ties, and as such the gov­ern­ment has prac­ti­cally no lat­i­tude to re­strict own­er­ship of them — or, in ef­fect, to do much of any­thing else in the realm of gun con­trol. This is il­log­i­cal; an ex­tremely lethal weapon may be pop­u­lar, but that does not make it con­sti­tu­tion­ally pro­tected. More­over, “the weapons that Mary­land sought to reg­u­late here are em­phat­i­cally not de­fen­sive in na­ture,” Judge J. Harvie Wilkin­son III re­sponded in a con­cur­ring opin­ion. “If this statute is struck down, it is dif­fi­cult to see what class of non-au­to­matic firearms could ever be reg­u­lated. If these weapons are out­side the leg­isla­tive com­pass, then vir­tu­ally all weapons will be.”

Nei­ther the ma­jor­ity on the 4th Cir­cuit — nor a rea­son­able read­ing of the Con­sti­tu­tion — de­mands that extreme re­sult.

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