Mr. Heller did not fare as well in his latest round of legal challenges.
US District Judge Ricardo Urbina ruled on Friday that the city’s new gun registration regime, including bans on assault weapons and large capacity ammunition feeding devices, do not violate rights guaranteed under the Second Amendment.
The decision is expected to be appealed.
The D.C. gun case is being closely followed because it raises a critical question left unanswered in the high court’s 2008 ruling. The key issue is what standard of review should judges impose while assessing the constitutionality of gun regulations.
Last month, the US Supreme Court heard oral argument in a second major gun rights case involving a handgun ban in Chicago. In that case, the question is whether the protections of the Second Amendment that apply in the District of Columbia are binding on state and local governments as well. A decision is expected before the end of June.
But legal analysts are already scouting potential cases that might bring the next big issue – the standard of review question – to the high court. This second Heller case could be that case.
In reaching his decision, Judge Urbina applied an intermediate level of judicial scrutiny. He decided against applying the toughest test, reserved for fundamental rights. He also rejected the city’s suggestion that he apply a highly permissive test.
The judge upheld a registration regime that gun owners complained was excessive and unduly burdensome. It includes requirements for a background check, fingerprints, and photos; a ballistic identification procedure that will allow the police to trace a spent shell to that particular weapon; and a declaration to police of how the weapon will be used and where it will be kept.
The judge said he was deferring to the judgment of the city council in passing the gun registration scheme.
“Because the council provided ample evidence of the ways in which the registration requirements will effectuate the goal of promoting public safety, and because public safety is a quintessential matter of public regulation, the court concludes that there is at least a substantial nexus between the registration requirements and the important governmental interest underlying those requirements,” Judge Urbina wrote.
In upholding the ban on assault weapons, the judge cited the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision. He said the court found a constitutional right to possess only those weapons in “common use” that are typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.
The city council concluded that assault weapons are military-style weapons of war, made for offensive military use. The council further found that such weapons are “disproportionately likely to be used by criminals” and do not have any legitimate use for self-defense. Urbina quoted the council as saying that such weapons would increase the danger to law-abiding users and innocent by-standers if kept in the home or used in self-defense situations.
Heller and his co-plaintiffs countered that assault weapons are not designed for offensive military use, are not disproportionately used in crimes, and are commonly used for target shooting, hunting, and personal protection. They added that requiring a gun owner to have to reload after discharging 10 rounds is similar to requiring the kind of trigger lock the Supreme Court struck down as unconstitutional in 2008.
Urbina was not convinced. “This argument borders on the absurd,” he said in his opinion. Banning large capacity ammunition feeding devices does not render a firearm inoperable “any more than the burden of having to pull the trigger repeatedly to discharge each successive round of ammunition renders a semiautomatic firearm ‘inoperable’ in comparison to a fully automatic machine gun.”