Bloomberg News

Washington Ban on Assault Weapons Constitutional, Court Says

October 04, 2011

(Updates with dissent in seventh paragraph.)

Oct. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Washington, D.C.’s ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines doesn’t violate the constitutional rights of residents in the U.S. capital, a federal appeals court ruled.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington today also upheld registration requirements for handguns put in place after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 ended the city’s almost total ban on firearms. The three-judge panel ordered a lower court to further review other aspects of Washington’s gun control law, such as its limits on multiple purchases.

“The District has carried its burden of showing a substantial relationship between the prohibition of both semi- automatic rifles and magazines holding more than 10 rounds, and the objectives of protecting police officers and controlling crime,” Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote in the 2-1 ruling.

The challenge to the restrictions was brought by Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the 2008 Supreme Court case, who argued that the District of Columbia’s gun laws are so burdensome as to violate the Constitution’s right to bear arms. The rules are inconsistent with high court rulings, including Heller’s earlier case, he said in court papers.

Fingerprinted and Photographed

Under the statute, residents who want to keep guns at home must be fingerprinted and photographed by the police, provide a work history and describe their intended use of the weapon. Firearms have to be registered every three years. Guns defined by the city as assault weapons are banned.

Judge Brett Kavanaugh dissented, saying he would have thrown out the ban on assault weapons and the registration requirements.

“This case concerns semi-automatic rifles,” Kavanaugh wrote. “It would strain logic and common sense to conclude that the Second Amendment protects semi-automatic handguns but does not protect semi-automatic rifles.”

Ginsburg said the court only looked at semi-automatic rifles qualifying as an assault weapon under the law because Heller and the other plaintiffs didn’t attempt to register a semi-automatic pistol or shotgun.

Heller’s lawyer, Stephen Halbrook, told the three-judge panel during arguments in November that district’s gun regulations are “the most radically restrictive” in the country. Halbrook didn’t immediately respond to a telephone message seeking comment on today’s ruling.

Work History

Washington also requires residents who want to keep a gun at home to provide a five-year work history and state their intended use of the weapon. Applicants must allow police to run ballistic tests on each gun they register. Magazines that hold more than 10 bullets are banned.

The solicitor general for the District of Columbia, Todd Kim, said during oral argument that the city has the authority to keep tabs on who owns guns within its borders and to keep out certain types of weapons. Kim had no immediate comment on the ruling.

The appeal panel approved what it called basic requirements for handguns, such as providing the city with name, age, occupation, date of sale and residence. Ginsburg said any registration requirements related to “long guns” and “novel” requirements for handguns, such as those requiring re- registration of handguns every three years and requiring the gun owner be fingerprinted and photographed, were sent back to the lower court judge for additional review.

Heller filed the current challenge in July 2008, just 12 days after Washington lawmakers passed emergency legislation to comply with the high court ruling in his earlier case. A federal trial judge dismissed the new case in March 2010 after finding that the city’s regulations were an appropriate balance between public safety and an individual’s right to own a gun.

The case is Heller v. District of Columbia, 10-07036, U.S. Court of Appeals for D.C. Circuit (Washington).

--Editors: Fred Strasser, Andrew Dunn

To contact the reporter on this story: Tom Schoenberg in federal court in Washington at tschoenberg@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.


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