Assault weapons like AK-47 rifles and AR-15s are “weapons of war” and as such are not protected by the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms, a federal appeals court in Virginia has ruled.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Maryland’s ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines in a 10-4 majority ruling of the entire court on Tuesday.
“The banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are not constitutionally protected arms,” Judge Robert King wrote. “We must affirm the district court’s award of summary judgment to the state,” the majority concluded.
Maryland passed the state’s Firearm Safety Act in 2013, in response to the Newtown, Connecticut slaughter of 20 school children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School by a gunman who used an AR-15-type Bushmaster rifle with detachable 30-round magazines.
Gun proponents sued and in 2014, a federal judge in Maryland upheld the constitutionality of the state ban.
On appeal, a divided three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit vacated the opinion and sent it back to consider in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2008 opinion, known as the Heller case, saying the ban would substantially burden Second Amendment rights to self-defense in the home.
The state provided evidence that the AR-15 was developed after World War II for the U.S. military and is a selective-fire rifle that can be fired in automatic mode, to fire continuously, or semiautomatic mode, firing once for each pull of the trigger.
The majority of the 4th Circuit pointed to the Supreme Court’s Heller decision as holding that the Second Amendment is not unlimited and is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever.
“There was simply no inconsistence between the court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment and its pronouncement that some of today’s weapons lack constitutional protection precisely because they ‘are most useful in military service,’” the 4th Circuit held.
By contrast to the AR-15, the M-16, a Vietnam War-era military rifle has been banned since the 1980s.
The AR-15 is essentially the functional equivalent of M-16s – and arguably more effective – and could be banned under the high court’s 2008 Heller decision.
“Simply put, AR-15-type rifles are ‘like’ M-16 rifles under any standard definition of the term,” the court said.
In dissent, Judge Harvie Wilkinson said upholding the ban would be “disenfranchising the American people on this life and death subject.”
He said the Maryland ban imposes on law-abiding citizens who choose to keep semi-automatic rifles a significant burden on the right to bear arms.
Case: Kolbe v. Hogan, No. 14-1945