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National gun rights group to appeal ruling upholding Massachusetts’ ban on assault weapons

Gun rights advocates rally on the Boston Common against HD4420, which they say complicates state gun laws. (Nancy Lane/Boston Herald/TNS)
December 31, 2023

A national gun owners advocacy group has vowed to appeal a federal judge’s ruling that Massachusetts’ assault weapons ban is constitutional.

Bay State resident Joseph Capen and the National Association for Gun Rights, a nonprofit advocacy group, challenged the law banning the sale and possession of assault weapons and large capacity ammunition magazines, arguing that it burdens their constitutional right to keep and bear arms under the Second and Fourteenth Amendments.

They filed the lawsuit in September 2022, months after the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in the landmark Bruen case, requiring states to fashion gun laws in line with the history and tradition of the Second Amendment.

Capen alleges that, if it weren’t for the ban, he would purchase certain firearms and magazines “to keep in his home for self-defense and other lawful purposes.”

Massachusetts U.S. District Court Chief Judge Dennis Saylor on Thursday denied a request to halt the ban which he said is consistent with the country’s historical tradition of limiting access to “dangerous and unusual weapons” due to their lethal nature and relative lack of use for self-defense.

Hannah Hill, NAGR’s director of legal affairs, indicated in a social media post Friday that the group will be appealing the decision to the First Circuit Court of Appeals in the new year.

“And the Grinch Award goes to our MA judge, who totally tried to ruin Christmas with this denial of preliminary injunction in our lawsuit to overturn the Romney assault weapons ban,” Hill stated on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “Appeal to the 1st Circuit coming in 2024!”

The statute at issue, modeled after the 1994 Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act, prohibits the possession, sale, and transfer of certain semiautomatic assault weapons and magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition or more than five shotgun shells.

Then-Gov. Mitt Romney implemented the statute after the federal act expired in 2004.

Capen and NAGR claimed restrictions on “dangerous and unusual weapons” cannot apply to today’s firearms because they are “in common use.”

Saylor, however, countered: “The relevant history affirms the principle that in 1791, as now, there was a tradition of regulating ‘dangerous and unusual’ weapons — specifically, those that are not reasonably necessary for self-defense.”

Attorney General Andrea Campbell in February opposed the plaintiff’s request, saying that “combat-style assault rifles and large-capacity magazines … pose an inordinate risk to the safety of the public and law enforcement officers, with no meaningful utility for individual self-defense.”

On Friday, Campbell called the court’s decision a “significant win that will protect the public and continue Massachusetts’ leadership on gun violence prevention.”

Saylor found that Capen and NAGR did not “seriously challenge” their assertion that AR-15s are useful for “ordinary self-defense purposes,” as they reiterated the banned weapons are in “common use” across the country.

“The features of modern assault weapons — particularly the AR-15’s radical increases in muzzle velocity, range, accuracy, and functionality — along with the types of injuries they can inflict are so different from colonial firearms that the two are not reasonably comparable,” Saylor wrote in his order.

In June, NAGR President Dudley Brown claimed Massachusetts has been violating the Second Amendment “for decades” and that he believed the Bruen ruling would lead to the lifting of the assault weapons ban.

“If the court disagrees and refuses to grant us a preliminary injunction, we look forward to appealing to the First Circuit Court of Appeals and on to the Supreme Court if necessary,” he said. “Bans on commonly owned weapons fly in the face of both the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Heller and Bruen rulings, and they cannot be allowed to stand.”

The upholding of the ban comes after the state House approved a sweeping gun reform bill in October that police chiefs across the state unanimously oppose.

The bill, which has yet to receive action from the Senate, looks to update the definition of assault weapons and crack down on the sale of ghost guns, among other objectives.

“While the Commonwealth annually ranks as one of the safest states in the entire country from gun violence, the Supreme Court’s Bruen decision nullified existing components of our gun laws, threatening the safety of the Commonwealth’s residents,” House Speaker Ron Mariano said in October.

NAGR has taken exception to the comprehensive bill, issuing a travel advisory in July for gun owners to and within Massachusetts in response to the proposed reforms.

“Your gun rights and your freedom are at serious risk in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” Brown said in a release highlighting the advisory. “If you live there you might want to pack your bags and if you are thinking of traveling there, you need to reconsider.”


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