A federal appeals court upheld Maryland's ban on assault rifles, concluding that the powerful military-style guns outlawed by the measure are not entitled to protection under the Second Amendment.
The 10-4 ruling, issued by the entire Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, reverses a decision by a smaller panel of judges from the court last year that called the law's constitutionality into question.
The bill was steered through the Maryland Senate in 2013 by then-Sen. Brian E. Frosh in the wake of the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Since elected as the state's attorney general, he has defended the law in court.
Frosh, a Democrat, called the dual role gratifying and said he was very happy with the ruling.
"It's a very strong opinion and we think absolutely correct," said Frosh, who called the violence wrought by the now-banned guns "senseless."
The law, which also outlawed magazines capable of holding more than 10 rounds, was challenged by two men who said they wanted to buy the banned rifles and by a handful of gun stores and associations. They argued that the rifles were popular among gun enthusiasts, used by people to defend their homes and not inherently dangerous. A federal judge in Baltimore disagreed, upholding the law.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The plaintiffs could appeal the case to the Supreme Court. Frosh said that he's confident the law will stand should the high court weigh in.
The case is among several that have tested how courts would consider new firearm restrictions in the wake of a 2008 Supreme Court decision — District of Columbia v. Heller — that affirmed an individual's constitutional right to own at least some types of guns.
In the Fourth Circuit's decision, which began by recounting recent mass shootings, Judge Robert B. King concluded that the rifles banned by the Maryland law fell outside of the protections laid down by the Supreme Court.
"Both before and after Newtown, similar military-style rifles and detachable magazines have been used to perpetrate mass shootings in places whose names have become synonymous with the slaughters that occurred there," he wrote.
"We are convinced that the banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are among those arms that are 'like' 'M-16 rifles' — 'weapons that are most useful in military service' — which the Heller Court singled out as being beyond the Second Amendment's reach," King wrote.
Four other courts have upheld similar restrictions in other states, he wrote, and he said the earlier decision by the panel of judges would have made the court an outlier.
In a scathing dissent, Judge William B. Traxler said it was his colleagues who had now gone too far by denying that the guns are covered under the Second Amendment at all.
"The majority has gone to greater lengths than any other court to eviscerate the constitutionally guaranteed right to keep and bear arms," he wrote.
Even if the weapons were constitutionally protected, Traxler acknowledged it is possible that the Maryland law still might pass muster but said it should be subjected to a stricter review by the court.
"For a law-abiding citizen who, for whatever reason, chooses to protect his home with a semi-automatic rifle instead of a semi-automatic handgun, Maryland's law clearly imposes a significant burden on the exercise of the right to arm oneself at home," he wrote.