WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A ban on semi-automatic rifles and large-capacity ammunition magazines in the capital city got a boost on Tuesday from a U.S. appeals court that upheld the prohibition as constitutional, a setback for gun rights activists.
The ruling upheld a lower court decision that found the ban and regulations by the city of Washington did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment that permits individuals to possess firearms.
The U.S. Appeals Court for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled 2-1 in favor of the city’s ban, which is one of the toughest in the United States and also includes a prohibition on semi-automatic pistols and shotguns.
“The District has carried its burden of showing a substantial relationship between the prohibition of both semi-automatic rifles and magazines holding more than ten rounds and the objectives of protecting police officers and controlling crime,” said the majority opinion.
It was written by Judge Douglas Ginsburg and he was joined by Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson. Judge Brett Kavanaugh dissented, saying the ban was unconstitutional. All three were appointed by Republican presidents.
The two judges who upheld the ban also backed some registration requirements under D.C. law, but sent some back to the district court for further proceedings.
The challenge to the assault weapons ban came from Dick Heller — the lead plaintiff who successfully challenged the city’s law prohibiting handguns that was ultimately ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.
The high court in 2008 issued a landmark ruling that the constitutional right to keep and bear arms applies to individuals and allows them to use guns for lawful purposes such as self-defense in the home.
In this latest case, Heller and two others tried to register semi-automatic rifles but were rejected by Washington police because the rifles were deemed to be assault weapons. Heller also tried to register a pistol but that too was rejected because it had a magazine that held 15 rounds.
Heller’s legal team had argued that semi-automatic rifles are often used for home protection and sport. They also contended that the high-capacity magazines were needed because otherwise they would have to pause to reload in a stressful situation.
The city countered that the weapons were not protected by the Second Amendment of the Constitution. The latest FBI crime statistics showed that 99 of the 131 murders in Washington in 2010 were a result of firearms and of the approximately 3,900 robberies last year, 40 percent were with firearms.
“As the District points out, the plaintiffs present hardly any evidence that semi-automatic rifles and magazines holding more than ten rounds are well-suited to or preferred for the purpose of self-defense or sport,” the majority opinion said.
Heller also challenged several registration regulations for handguns, including those that allowed a person to register only one pistol each month, and required that the owner submit the weapon for ballistics identification, attend firearms training and undergo a background check every six years.
The appeals court sent some of those, including ballistics identification, five hours of training and registration limited to one pistol every 30 days, back to the lower court for further review.
“It upholds our government’s authority to pass reasonable gun laws, and it supports the basic registration requirements as well as the bans on assault weapons and large magazines — each of which are key components of the District’s battle against violent crime,” Washington Mayor Vincent Gray said.
A spokesman for the National Rifle Association, the powerful lobby group that has backed the legal challenge, said they are considering their options for appeal which could include asking the full appeals court to review the case or going to the Supreme Court.
“When it comes to self-defense, semi-automatic firearms of all types are an increasingly popular choice for most Americans, and the court itself admitted that semi-automatics are in common use, with millions of these types of guns sold in recent years,” said Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham