On Friday, a unanimous panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld a Massachusetts law prohibiting the possession of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines (LCMs). The decision, in a case called Worman v. Healey, drew praise from a presidential candidate and is a major victory for gun sense champion Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. The Worman decision will prevent the proliferation of the types of weapons used in some of the most lethal mass shootings, including the shootings in Parkland, Newtown, and Aurora.
The unanimous three-judge panel decision was written by a Reagan appointee and joined by retired Supreme Court Justice David Souter. In upholding the law, the Court applied a two-step framework used by most courts to determine whether challenged laws are constitutional. Under the two-step framework, a court first considers whether a law impacts the Second Amendment right as historically understood. If it determines a challenged law does impact the Second Amendment right, a court then analyzes whether the law advances the government’s interest in public safety enough to justify the intrusion on the right.
Because determining the precise scope of the Second Amendment is a complicated question, the Worman Court skipped over the historical scope analysis and jumped directly to upholding the law based on its impact on public safety. The State was justified in prohibiting assault weapons, the Court found, because these firearms “permit a shooter to fire multiple rounds very quickly, allowing him to hit more victims in a shorter period of time.” The Court also found that LCMs, capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, “exacerbate this danger, allowing the shooter to fire more bullets without stopping to reload.”
The Worman Court further agreed with evidence presented by Massachusetts s showing the injuries caused by assault weapons “tend to cause far greater damage to the muscles, bones, soft tissue, and vital organs.” And it found that because most mass shooters purchase their guns legally, the State was reasonable in its belief the law would curtail mass violence.
The Court also rejected arguments by the gun lobby that it should apply a “common-use test” that looks only to whether the regulated weapon is popular nationally in deciding whether a regulation is constitutional. As Everytown Law pointed out in its brief in support of the State, and as the Court acknowledged, this argument is circular: Used alone, it could mean that a weapon is protected by the Second Amendment simply because it was unregulated in the past — or that it is unprotected by the Second Amendment simply because past legislatures had banned it. Everytown’s brief also addressed the long history of similar regulations and brought to the court’s attention Everytown’s research on the frequency with which assault weapons and LCMs are used in mass shootings.
Friday’s decision by the First Circuit is consistent with decisions of courts in the Second, Third, Fourth, Seventh, and D.C. Circuits, which have upheld prohibitions on the sale or possession of assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. It also stands in stark contrast with a recent decision by a district judge in San Diego to strike down California’s prohibition on the possession and sale of LCMs. The San Diego judge’s decision, which is riddled with factual and methodological errors , is the only currently valid decision striking down an LCM restriction. It is on appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where we expect it will be reversed.
The plaintiffs in Worman will likely seek review of the First Circuit’s decision by the United States Supreme Court, for the term beginning next fall. The Supreme Court has already rejected review in several assault weapon and LCM cases, but it has yet to do so since Justice Kavanaugh — who previously voted to strike down a similar assault weapons ban while presiding on the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — joined the Court after Justice Kennedy’s retirement.
Everytown Law will continue monitoring the case and supporting Massachusetts in defending its important public safety law.