2016 gun rights wins and losses in the courts

Second Amendment litigation at both the state and federal level saw important gains when it came to background checks, but some significant reverses in carry rights.

A number of federal appeals court rulings held that minor problems in an individual’s past shouldn’t result in losing their gun rights while others slammed the door on Second Amendment protections on firearms outside of the home. This came as taser acceptance became more recognized by the courts and the subject of Supreme Court nominees became a hot button issue.

Carry rights

In June, a federal appeals court held that the right to carry a concealed firearm in public is not, and never has been, protected by the Second Amendment. The ruling, from an en banc panel of the U.S Ninth Circuit set up to rehear the combined Peruta and Richards cases, challenged strict “may-issue” concealed carry policies in California.

Despite the setback, some California sheriffs have adopted more lenient guidelines in issuing permits while gun rights groups filed a new challenge focusing on open carry.

In September, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments in a pair of ongoing attempts to overturn Washington’s strict “may-issue” policy. The cases — Wrenn v. DC and Grace v. DC — seek to bar the city from applying its vague “good reason” test as part of its gun licensing program, which has declined more permits than it has granted. A decision is expected next year.

In Florida, the state supreme court heard a case challenging the state’s ban on the open carry of firearms. A decision from the court, which heard arguments in June, is expected sometime in early 2017.

Weapons bans

In March, a federal court killed the last handgun moratorium in the U.S. by ruling the long-standing ban by the Commonwealth of Northern Marianas Islands against handgun ownership and import is unconstitutional. When the Commonwealth moved to allow handguns so long as a $1,000 tax was placed on them, the courts likewise ruled that a violation of Second Amendment rights.

Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey found herself fending off a federal lawsuit from gun industry groups over her ban on the sale of “Massachusetts-compliant” semi-auto rifles. Healey argues the ban was within both the scope of her post and the constitution, and she is seeking to have it dismissed.

The full U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments against Maryland‘s controversial “assault weapon” ban in May though they had not released a ruling by the end of the year.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to take up a challenge to Connecticut’s 2013 assault weapon ban expansion rushed through in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, in effect upholding the law. The court went on to uphold the U.S. Postal Service’s ban on otherwise lawful concealed carry on their properties.

A unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals saw nothing wrong with a lower court ruling that guns capable of select-fire are “dangerous and unusual” and not protected by the Constitution in the case of a Texas man who, according to the ATF, was accidentally granted a tax stamp to make a select-fire M-16 from semi-auto AR-15 components.

Background checks

A 15-judge panel ruled in September against the government in the combined cases of two men blocked from firearm possession after run-ins that resulted in convictions for non-serious crimes. While neither spent a day in jail, both lost their firearms rights under federal law that treats those convicted of state misdemeanors that can be punished by two or more years in jail as prohibited firearms possessors. The majority cited the relatively minor sentences passed on the two men as a reason to disregard their crimes as being serious enough to void their gun rights.

The same month, a split 10-6 panel for the U.S. Sixth Circuit found that an involuntary commitment to a mental health facility might not be enough to strip away an individual’s gun rights for life.

Preemption

In June, the Democrat-heavy Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld a challenge to a Republican-backed gun preemption law in the Keystone State. The law, Act 192, allowed member organizations such as the National Rifle Association to file suit against cities and counties whose local gun laws were stronger than the state’s. The court found fault primarily with how the law was passed, not its language, and Commonwealth Courts have since found at least one Pennsylvania town’s ban on carrying firearms in area parks to be unlawful.

Gun control as health care

The U.S. 11th Circuit in February vacated and agreed to rehear a case challenging Florida’s law prohibiting health care workers from asking about their patient’s firearms. Known popularly as the “Docs vs Glocks” case, prior courts had repeatedly ruled in favor of gun owner privacy.

In September, a federal court held that refusing gun sales to otherwise law-abiding cannabis patients does not violate their Second Amendment rights. Currently, at least 25 states and the District of Columbia have statutes to allow the legal use of cannabis for authorized patients while others have legalized cannabis-derived treatments. However, the ATF has long held that any sale or possession of firearms by those who use marijuana, even if allowed by state law, remains criminal.

Liability

Survivors of those killed in the 2014 Overland Park Jewish Community Center shooting went after the stores that sold the firearms to the white supremacist felon who pulled the trigger, citing store clerks should have realized the warning signs of a straw purchase.

A Missouri pawn shop in November agreed to a $2.2 million settlement for selling a gun to a mentally ill woman — over the protests of her mother — who used the gun to murder her father. This came after the Missouri State Supreme Court held the federal Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act did not preempt the suit’s claim of negligent entrustment.

In November, a Milwaukee County court dismissed a wrongful death lawsuit against online classified service Armslist in connection to a 2012 murder. Backed by the Brady Campaign, the Wisconsin judge held that since Armslist did not create the ad or directly become involved in the transaction, they couldn’t be held at fault.

The federal government found itself mired in a series of lawsuits from the families of those murdered with guns stolen from federal agents including a high-profile San Francisco case brought by the family of a woman killed by an illegal immigrant with a stolen federal officer’s service weapon.

Tasers

This year has produced a bumper crop of lawsuits seeking to repeal local and state bans on civilian possession of taser style weapons fueled by the U.S. Supreme Court’s treatment of a Massachusetts case in which the high court found the Second Amendment protects the devices. This led to challenges in Washington, D.C., New Jersey, New Orleans, and New York. Some areas with bans quickly scrapped them rather than electing to defend a taser prohibition in court.

Supreme Court

The sudden death in March of U.S. Justice Antonin Scalia in March, a conservative stalwart on the bench who penned the landmark Heller decision on gun rights, led to a political hot potato for the White House with a Republican-controlled Senate refusing to hold hearings on President Obama’s nominee to replace Scalia, D.C. Circuit Court Chief Judge Merrick Garland. The prospect of the next President stacking the deck on the high court to the left or right became political fodder throughout the election race to the White House while Garland’s nomination possibility dimmed.

Efforts to force a vote on, or garner a recess appointment for, Garland circulated through the end of the year, though they were largely rebuffed.