Federal appeals court will hear challenge to Md. assault weapons ban

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Vinny DeMarco, Len Lucchi and Bernie Horn of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence with Attorney General Brian Frosh in front of the Federal Court of Appeals on March 25, 2015.

by Jenna Portnoy
Washington Post

 Lawyers for the state of Maryland and gun rights advocates squared off in federal appeals court on Wednesday over the constitutionality of Maryland’s 2013 ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

The law, passed months after the mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., was challenged in court by a group of gun stores, gun-ownership organizations and individuals. They argue that the ban on commonly owned guns violates their Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Proponents of the law say the prohibited firearms are disproportionately used in mass acts of violence and rarely used in self-defense.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit heard arguments for less than one hour in Richmond, in an appeal of U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake’s ruling in August that upheld the ban. The court has no deadline to return a decision.

The law makes the possession or sale of 45 types of assault weapons or a magazine capable of holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition a misdemeanor in Maryland.

It passed amid a wave of legislative efforts to increase regulation on gun purchases after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School left 20 students and six educators dead.

Matthew J. Fader, a lawyer for the state, said the magazines banned by Maryland’s law result in “more shots fired, more injuries and more deaths.”

Some children at Sandy Hook were able to escape injury when shooter Adam Lanza stopped to reload his 30-round rifle, Fader said.

“If he had to change it out after 10 rounds, a lot more kids might have gotten out of that room,” he said.

John Parker Sweeney, the attorney for the nine plaintiffs who sued the state, said owners of the guns in question purchased them for self-defense as well as target practice and hunting.

“We have popular firearms millions of people have flocked to own because they choose to own them for lawful purposes,” he said. “These are not military weapons.”

To Fader’s assertion that the state police could identify no cases of the weapons being used for self-defense, Sweeney said a gun doesn’t have to be shot “out the window everyday” to prove its usefulness.

“I have purchased it in case I need to use it,” he said.

Maryland’s newly elected attorney general, Brian E. Frosh (D), a former state senator who as chair of the Judiciary Committee helped shepherd the legislation, attended the hearing but did not testify.

“It’s a common-sense public safety measure,” Frosh said Tuesday. “We’ve seen the kind of death and destruction that results from these weapons in the wrong hands. Pick your example: Virginia Tech, Newtown, Tucson. Horrendous situations.”

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who took office in January, opposed the gun ban when it was proposed but has said he now accepts it as settled state law.

Groups challenging the ban include the Maryland State Rifle And Pistol Association, the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

After the hearing, Shannon Alford, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Maryland, said: “Hundreds of thousands of people use firearms to defend themselves every day. What this law does is limit their ability to do that,” she said.

Vincent DeMarco, president of Marylanders to Prevent Gun Violence, which supports the ban, said not all provisions of the Firearm Safety Act of 2013 were challenged in court. For example, the law makes Maryland one of a handful of states that require buyers to provide fingerprints to obtain a handgun license.

“We believe this law will save lives,” he said.

A federal law banning assault weapons expired in 2004.