The U.S. Supreme Court Monday handed a legal victory to advocates of banning firearms commonly known as assault weapons.
By leaving a suburban Chicago gun control law intact, the court gave a boost to efforts aimed at imposing such bans elsewhere, at a time of renewed interest in gun regulation after recent mass shootings.
Police say the attackers in San Bernardino used such weapons as did the gunman who attacked a Planned Parenthood clinic two weeks ago in Colorado.
The court declined to take up a challenge to a 2013 law passed in Highland Park, Illinois that bans the sale, purchase, or possession of semi-automatic weapons that can hold more than ten rounds in a single ammunition clip or magazine. It specifically includes certain rifles, including those resembling the AR-15 and AK-47 assault-style firearms.
Semi-automatic weapons are capable of shooting a single round with each pull of the trigger and, consequently, can fire rapidly. Large capacity magazines reduce the need to reload as often.
A federal district judge upheld the law, and so did a federal appeals court panel by a 2-1 vote. On Monday the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas said the Supreme Court should have taken the case. Thomas wrote their dissent, said the court should have granted review to prevent the appeals court "from relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right."
Central to the dispute was a 2008 Supreme Court decision that for the first time said the Constitution's Second Amendment provides an individual right to own a handgun for self defense. While it was a watershed ruling for gun rights, it also said "dangerous and unusual weapons" can be restricted.
In rejecting a challenge to the law, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, said "assault weapons with large-capacity magazines can fire more shots, faster, and thus can be more dangerous in the aggregate. Why else are they the weapons of choice in mass shootings?"
The Illinois State Rifle Association, which filed a lawsuit to challenge the Highland Park law's constitutionality, said the weapons are in no way unusual. The AR-15, the group said, is the best-selling rifle type in the nation.
Lawyers for 24 states urged the Supreme Court to strike the ordinance down. They said the weapons it banned are not only commonly used but also protected by state laws that forbid local communities to restrict them.
Similar bans are in effect in California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, and in Chicago and surrounding cities.
In mid-October, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Connecticut and New York laws.
"These weapons are disproportionately used in crime, and particularly in criminal mass shootings," the court said. "They are also disproportionately used to kill law enforcement officers."
Since issuing its landmark gun rights decision in 2008, the Supreme Court has been reluctant to step back into this controversial area of the law, even as the lower courts have split over the nature of gun rights outside the home.
Last year, the justices declined to take up challenges to two laws that restrict handgun ownership by young adults — a federal law barring the sale of handguns to customers under 21 and a Texas law forbidding anyone under 21 to carry a handgun in public.
And the court last year refused to hear an appeal of a New Jersey law that sharply restricts the authority to carry a handgun in public by requiring proof of a justifiable need to carry a gun.
Each time, the challengers have made a similar plea, urging the Supreme Court to re-enter the fray because the lower courts are misreading its 2008 decision, permitting too many gun regulations to stand.
In this most recent case, lawyers for Illinois State Rifle Association said that in the seven years since the last big gun ruling, "the lower courts have assiduously worked to sap it of any real meaning. 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."