NSSF sues Mass. attorney general for 'unconstitutional' assault weapons crackdown

Unilateral gun law change in Mass sparks confusion, rush on gun stores

Massachusetts state Attorney General Maura Healey at a July 20 press conference announcing an assault weapons enforcement notice (Photo: Healey’s office)

The firearm industry’s leading trade association and four gun retailers filed suit in federal court Thursday against Massachusetts’ “unconstitutional” assault weapons crackdown.

The National Shooting Sports Foundation announced Thursday it filed documents in U.S. District Court challenging the constitutional grounds of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey’s “enforcement notice” on the state’s 1998 assault weapons ban.

The action “seeks declaratory relief and a permanent injunction enjoining enforcement,” NSSF said.

In the wake of the June 12 mass shooting at a gay Orlando nightclub, Healey issued a notice warning gun owners and retailers alike her office would crackdown on sales of “copycat” assault weapons — often marketed as “state compliant” versions of outlawed guns, including the Colt AR-15 and the Kalashnikov AK-47 — in an enforcement move she says the law supports.

“I want to be perfectly clear — if a gun’s operating system is essentially the same as that of a banned weapon or if the gun has components that are interchangeable with those of a banned weapon, it’s a ‘copy’ or ‘duplicate,’ and it’s illegal,” she said during a July 20 press conference. “Assault weapons prohibited under our laws cannot be altered in any way to make their sale or possession legal in Massachusetts.”

National Rifle Association radio host Cam Edwards, and other gun rights advocates, accused Healey of reinterpreting a decades-old law for political gain.

The move sent residents flocking to firearms dealers, with state data recording 2,549 rifles sold the same day as Healey’s announcement.

Likewise, data compiled from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System shows background checks for “long gun” sales spiked 67 percent in July at 5,108 applications, the highest level seen in the state since 1998.

In court documents filed Thursday, NSSF calls the notice “unconstitutionally vague, invalid, and unenforceable” and says it “exceeds the Attorney General’s lawful authority.”

“Attorney General Maura Healey’s actions were unconstitutional,” said Lawrence G. Keane, NSSF senior vice president and general counsel, in a statement released Thursday. “Firearms retailers in Massachusetts cannot determine the meaning or scope of the Attorney General’s Enforcement Notice and subsequent explanations. Because criminal penalties can result due to Attorney General Healey’s unilateral reinterpretation of a state statute done without administrative process or input from affected parties, her office exceeded its lawful authority and retailers were deprived of their due process protections under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.”

NSSF joins four Massachusetts-based retailers on the suit: Pullman Arms Inc. of Worcester; Guns and Gear LLC of Agawam; Paper City Firearms of Holyoke and Grrr Gear of Orange.

“In addition, if the Attorney General’s Enforcement Notice is understood as applying to all semi-automatic firearms, it violates the Second and Fourteenth Amendments to keep and bear arms because it bans the manufacture, sale and possession of a broad range of firearms in common use by the citizens of Massachusetts,” Keane said. “Unfortunately, Attorney General Healey’s unconstitutional action has left us no other option than to seek relief from the courts.”

Healey’s office called the lawsuit “no surprise” in an email Friday.

“Our enforcement notice has effectively ended the sale of copycat assault weapons in Massachusetts that have been illegal since 1998. It is working,” said Jillian Fennimore, Healey’s press secretary. “For far too long the gun industry has taken it upon itself to interpret the state’s assault weapons ban to allow these unlawful sales, so it’s no surprise that the gun lobby has challenged our enforcement. We look forward to defending in court our efforts to ensure that residents get the full protection of the law.”

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