Speed Reads

Gun Laws

The Supreme Court let an assault weapon ban stand, and two justices are very upset

The New York Daily News has turned its front page into a bully pulpit to advocate for gun control since the terrorist mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, last week, but Tuesday's cover isn't an attack or passive-aggressive zinger — it's a thank you note:

On Monday, the Supreme Court decided, 7-2, not to hear an appeal of an assault weapon ban in the Chicago suburb Highland Park, letting the ordinance stand. "The justices don't reveal their reasons for denying review, but one thing is clear," UCLA law professor Adam Winkler told The New York Times: "The justices certainly aren't eager to take up a Second Amendment case these days.... One has to wonder," he added, "if the Supreme Court is having second thoughts about the Second Amendment."

Justice Clarence Thomas isn't having second thoughts, and he explained why he wanted to overturn the ban in a six-page dissent joined by Justice Antonin Scalia. He started out by reminding the court of its two previous decisions, Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010, that recognized for the first time that "the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes." Lower courts have been "relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right," he added.

The Highland Park ordinance "criminalizes modern sporting rifles (e.g., AR-style semiautomatic rifles), which many Americans own for lawful purposes like self-defense, hunting, and target shooting," Thomas wrote, lecturing the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which let the ordinance stand. "If a broad ban on firearms can be upheld based on conjecture that the public might feel safer (while being no safer at all), then the Second Amendment guarantees nothing."

Thomas couldn't get his fellow conservatives to take up the case, but most experts say the high court will have to revisit gun laws at some point. Gun-rights advocates argue that when it does, such assault weapon bans will be struck down. But Winkler says the Supreme Court's non-ruling ruling is sending a different signal. "The court’s action will encourage gun control advocates to push for bans on assault weapons," he said. "This is one of the items at the top of the gun control agenda. Now advocates have less to fear from the courts on this issue."