Two recent decisions from federal courts on opposite sides of the country illustrate the current widespread legal ambiguity surrounding constitutional limits on gun control. On the West Coast, a court found that a law limiting gun purchasers to only one new firearm each month was impermissible under the Constitution in Nguyen v. Bonta. Meanwhile, on the East Coast, a federal appeals court ruled in Ocean State Tactical v. Rhode Island that a law banning magazines loaded with more than ten rounds of ammunition would be allowed.

The Second Amendment has Entered the Bruen Era

Perhaps no issue in American politics is as omnipresent as the tension between advocates for gun control and supporters of the right to bear arms. Those in support of gun control point to gun violence statistics and high-profile mass shooting incidents. Their opponents simply point to the Second Amendment of the Constitution, which enshrines the principle that “… the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed.”

Like most constitutional rights, the right to bear arms is not absolute. Historically, both the federal government and the states have regulated various aspects of gun ownership, including taxes, background checks, and outright bans on certain weapons deemed “especially dangerous” like machine guns and sawed-off shotguns.

In more recent history, however, the Supreme Court has pushed back against gun regulations in a series of landmark decisions. In D.C. v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago, the justices invalidated laws that restricted ownership of handguns because they infringed on an individual’s Second Amendment right to possess such a weapon for lawful purposes, including self-defense.

In 2022, the Supreme Court struck down a New York law that restricted the right to carry firearms in public places in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, Inc. v. Bruen, and in doing so, the justices changed the analytical framework for evaluating gun control laws. Now, to pass constitutional muster, a gun control law must be “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

The Bruen decision has prompted a flurry of lawsuits challenging the validity of gun laws, as lawmakers seeking to regulate guns continue to test the limits of the Second Amendment.

California Federal Court Rejects One-Gun-A-Month Law

In California, the state government, aiming to reduce firearms trafficking and gun violence, passed a law that limited the number of firearms that an individual can purchase within a certain period. One of the major objectives of the infamous “one-gun-a-month” law was to make it more difficult for people to conduct straw purchases, transactions involving a qualified gun purchaser who submits to a background check and obtains a firearm only to give or sell the gun to someone else, who may or may not be legally allowed to possess firearms.

The law drew an immediate legal challenge from gun retailers, Second Amendment advocates, and others who claimed that the law interfered with their constitutional right to keep and bear arms in Nguyen v. Bonta. California argued that regulations that limit the quantity of arms, otherwise protected by the Second Amendment, were consistent with historical regulations limiting gunpowder.

The federal court was not convinced; it found that the purposes of the gunpowder regulations were distinct from the purposes of the California one-gun-a-month law. The historic gunpowder laws were aimed at preventing accidental fires and explosions related to the storage of the explosive substance. On the other hand, California’s law sought to prevent criminal acts. Because the purposes of the laws were different, the court determined that California’s law was unconstitutional, finding that the Bruen test requires a more closely matched historical tradition of regulation.

First Circuit Allows Restrictions on Large Capacity Magazines

In 2022, Rhode Island passed a law that criminalized the possession of any “magazine, box, drum, tube, belt, feed strip, or other ammunition feeding device which is capable of holding, or can be readily extended to hold, more than ten (10) rounds of ammunition to be fed continuously and directly therefrom into a semiautomatic firearm.”

A gun retailer and some aggrieved gun owners wasted no time in filing a federal lawsuit, Ocean State Tactical v. Rhode Island, arguing that the new law violated the Second Amendment. Their suit sought a preliminary injunction to block the new law from taking effect, and when that motion for injunctive relief was denied, the plaintiffs appealed to the First Circuit Court of Appeals.

The appellate court reviewed the evidence and affirmed the reasoning that the lower court had used in denying the injunction. Both courts were convinced that large capacity magazines could be banned because they fit into the category of “especially dangerous” weapons, looking to data about both mass shootings and incidents of lawful self-defense. Limiting the number of bullets in a cartridge was found to be a reasonable regulation consistent with the nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation, and the analysis relied on comparisons with the bans on sawed-off shotguns, machine guns, and even Bowie knives. The data evaluated by the court found that these weapons were popular with criminals but seldom used for lawful self-defense.

This decision and its reasoning could influence legal battles in other states as well. Nearby Connecticut and New York have bans on assault weapons and large capacity magazines that have also been challenged by gun rights activists, who are hoping to prevail at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Similarly, a Delaware assault weapon ban has been challenged to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.

Returning to the Supreme Court for New Guidance on Gun Rules

With so many different decisions arising from the application of Bruen, the Supreme Court will likely have to weigh in again on how courts should determine what restrictions are allowable under the seems poised to hear a series of challenges to laws and regulations put forward by the “historical tradition” test.

The justices have already heard oral arguments in United States v. Rahimi, which could offer the earliest opportunity for more clarity on how courts should apply Bruen to modern gun control measures. A decision in that case is highly anticipated because it could affect the courses of several ongoing lawsuits and appeals.

 Even more recently, the justices seemed split on whether “bump stocks” – items that can be used to increase the firing rates of rifles — could be banned after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a 2018 regulation that outlawed the devices. A decision on bump stocks would likely offer insight into how the nation’s highest court will react to challenges to other new firearm technologies that skirt existing rules, like ghost guns.

Nobody knows how the SCOTUS justices will ultimately rule on these disputes, or whether the Bruen rule could be replaced or modified in a new landmark ruling. So far, the nation’s highest court has indicated some pliability on what is seen as a firm pro-gun posture. Recently, the Supreme Court allowed Illinois’ challenged assault weapons ban to remain in effect pending appeal from the Seventh Circuit, leaving gun control advocates hopeful that Bruen might allow for modern regulations of firearms after all.

Note: The author of this blog was employed by the Rhode Island Office of the Attorney General but had no involvement in Ocean State Tactical v. Rhode Island.

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