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News Opinion Editorial

A victory for public safety [Editorial]

U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake's decision Tuesday upholding Maryland's ban on assault weapons and large-capacity ammunition magazines almost certainly won't be the last word on the subject. The gun advocates who sued to overturn the ban won't be satisfied until they've heard from the Supreme Court, nor likely will their compatriots from four other states where courts have come to the same conclusion as Judge Blake. But her ruling provides a clear analysis of why the state's interest in banning these weapons outweighs the individuals' interest in owning them, even under the expansive view of the Second Amendment the Supreme Court embraced several years ago.

No matter how often gun rights advocates like to quote the phrase "shall not be infringed" from the Second Amendment, even the current Supreme Court, which overturned a century of precedent in its determination that the amendment conveys an individual rather than a collective right, recognizes that it has limits. In the District of Columbia v. Heller, the court found that the Second Amendment does not provide "a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose" but rather protects the right to possess those "in common use at the time" and "typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes." The "core protection" of the right, the court found, is self-defense in the home.

Subsequent courts have employed a two-part test to determine the constitutionality of gun regulations, which Judge Blake follows. It asks whether the law imposes a burden on the Second Amendment right and if so whether such a burden is justified by a substantial government interest.

Judge Blake found generally unpersuasive the notion that assault weapons fall under the scope of the Second Amendment as defined in Heller. Though there are several million of them in the United States, they constitute at the outside about 3 percent of the civilian gun stock, and, given the concentration of gun ownership in fewer and fewer households, they are owned by something on the order of 1 percent of the population. Moreover, the plaintiffs presented no real evidence that either assault weapons or large capacity magazines are commonly used in self defense.

But she did not rely on that question to come to her conclusion that Maryland's law is valid. Even assuming assault weapons and large capacity magazines are covered by the Second Amendment, she found that a rational state interest in preventing violent crime is served by the ban without unduly burdening citizens' right to self defense in the home.

Such guns are specifically designed as offensive weapons — indeed, they are just semi-automatic copies of military rifles — and they have features like pistol grips and muzzle flash suppressors that make them well suited to inflicting large numbers of casualties. "The ban on assault weapons is likely to further the government's interest in protecting public safety by removing weapons that cause greater harm when used," Judge Blake wrote. She found a similar justification for banning large capacity magazines.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court will likely have to hash out what limits on gun ownership it anticipated in the Heller decision, but for now, as Judge Blake's opinion shows, Maryland's law falls well within the scope of what lower courts have deemed permissible.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most important thing about the ruling is what it does not cover, specifically the part of Maryland's new gun control law that sets up a licensing system for handgun purchasers. Because it presents a barrier to so-called straw purchases of firearms on behalf of criminals, that provision directly targets the everyday violence that has plagued Baltimore for too many years. Judge Blake did not address it because the plaintiffs did not challenge it. That in itself represents a major victory for public safety.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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