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US top court leans toward keeping Maryland’s ban on assault weapons, potentially setting precedent for gun control

On March 20, 2024, a significant legal examination took place within the halls of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, potentially setting a precedent for the future of gun control legislation in the United States. During an en banc session—a rare full-court hearing—the 15 judges deliberated over the constitutionality of Maryland’s ban on assault weapons, a topic that has ignited fervent debates across the nation. This hearing, featuring a bench composed of nine judges appointed by Democratic presidents and six by Republicans, was not just another legal proceeding but a pivotal moment that could influence the interpretation of the Second Amendment in the context of modern firearm technology and societal needs.

At the heart of the discussion was Maryland’s legislative response to the harrowing 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where a shooter wielding a semi-automatic rifle claimed the lives of 26 individuals, including 20 children. In the wake of this devastation, Maryland enacted a ban on assault weapons, aiming to prevent such atrocities from recurring within its jurisdiction. The law specifically targets firearms like the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, a weapon that has become emblematic of the national debate over gun control.

The appellate court’s deliberation followed in the wake of a landmark 2022 Supreme Court ruling that expanded gun rights, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the future of state-level firearms regulation. This ruling, issued by the court’s conservative majority, introduced a new criterion for evaluating gun laws, stipulating that restrictions must align with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation. This development formed the backdrop against which the 4th Circuit’s hearing unfolded, as the court grappled with the task of reconciling this broadened interpretation of the Second Amendment with the imperative to safeguard public safety.

Central to the appellants’ argument was the assertion that Americans possess a right to own firearms that are in common use, including the widely popular AR-15 rifle. This perspective hinges on the Supreme Court’s recent jurisprudence, which articulated that the government cannot impose a blanket prohibition on a category of firearms unless they are deemed “highly unusual in society at large.” The challengers, represented by attorney Peter Patterson on behalf of several gun rights groups, contended that Maryland’s ban flouts this principle, arguing that the law unjustly restricts access to a type of weapon that has become prevalent in American society.

Yet, several judges on the panel expressed skepticism regarding the unbridled application of the Second Amendment to modern firearms technology. U.S. Circuit Judge Harvie Wilkinson, an appointee of former President Ronald Reagan, underscored the historical practice of firearms regulation, noting that states have traditionally exercised the authority to adapt laws in response to technological advancements in weaponry. This viewpoint suggests a recognition of the dynamic nature of constitutional rights, which may necessitate nuanced interpretations in the face of evolving societal challenges.

Amidst the legal arguments and judicial inquiries, a broader philosophical question emerged: to what extent should the proliferation of a specific weapon impact its legal status? Chief U.S. Circuit Judge Albert Diaz, nominated by former President Barack Obama, probed the implications of a legal framework in which the commonality of a dangerous weapon precludes its regulation, posing hypothetical scenarios to illustrate the potential absurdity of such a doctrine. Similarly, U.S. Circuit Judge Robert King, another Obama appointee, invoked the Supreme Court’s prior decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, which acknowledged the permissibility of banning firearms more suited for military than civilian use, drawing a parallel between the AR-15 and the military-grade M-16 rifle.

In contrast, U.S. Circuit Judge Paul Neimeyer, appointed by former President George H.W. Bush, appeared more receptive to the challenge against the ban. He suggested that the burden rests on the state to demonstrate both the dangerousness and unusualness of assault weapons, hinting at the possibility of remanding the case for a more detailed examination of these factors.

The case, Bianchi v. Brown, thus stands at the confluence of legal principle, historical precedent, and contemporary societal concerns. Its outcome could have far-reaching implications, not only for Maryland’s ability to regulate firearms but also for the broader national discourse on the balance between individual rights and collective safety. As the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals deliberates over this complex legal landscape, the eyes of the nation await a decision that could redefine the contours of the Second Amendment for the modern era.

“As the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seems poised to uphold Maryland’s assault weapons ban, it’s a crucial moment for public safety. This decision could signal a meaningful step towards reconciling the right to bear arms with the imperative need to protect communities from mass shootings. It’s about finding a balanced approach that respects constitutional rights while addressing the undeniable risks posed by assault weapons in the wrong hands,” Dr. Iain Overton, Executive Director of Action on Armed Violence (AOAV), said in response to the court’s inclination.