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Lawsuit targets NY ‘assault weapon’ definitions

Two Long Island residents argue New York should relax its regulations around semiautomatic firearms such as AR-15s.

LONG ISLAND (CN) — Filed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision striking down New York gun regulations, a new lawsuit challenges how the state defines an “assault weapon.”

Two Long Island men filed a complaint Tuesday in the Eastern District of New York’s Central Islip courthouse, saying they would like to buy AR-15 style rifles but can’t do so under state law because the guns have features that place them in the state’s restricted “assault weapon” category. 

“The banned semiautomatic firearms, like all other semiautomatic firearms, fire only one round for each pull of the trigger. They are not machine guns,” the 18-page complaint reads. “What is more, the designation ‘assault weapons’ is a complete misnomer, ‘developed by anti-gun publicists’ in their crusade against lawful firearm ownership.”

A military machine gun can fire 1,000 rounds per minute, the suit notes, whereas “an AR-15 can only fire as often as a person can pull its trigger.” 

David Vanchoff and Andrew Cross filed the suit along with the gun rights activist group Firearms Policy Coalition, of which the named plaintiffs are both members.

The plaintiffs argue that the combination of characteristics that put a rifle on New York’s assault weapon list, including certain types of folding and telescopic stocks and detachable magazines, don’t necessarily make the firearm more powerful or dangerous.

“There is no constitutionally relevant difference between a semi-automatic handgun, shotgun, and rifle. While some exterior physical attributes may differ — wood vs. metal stocks and furniture, the number and/or location of grips, having a bare muzzle vs. having muzzle devices, different barrel lengths, etc. — they are, in all relevant respects, the same. 

Previous Second Amendment challenges failed at the Second Circuit, the lawsuit notes, though in 2015 the appellate court upheld bans on assault weapons that New York and Connecticut adopted in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

“Because the prohibitions are substantially related to the important governmental interests of public safety and crime reduction, they pass constitutional muster,” Judge José Cabranes wrote then for a three-judge panel.

The tides changed, the plaintiffs here argue, after the Supreme Court’s recent ruling in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, where the high court found that state laws restricting who can carry a concealed weapon in public were unconstitutional.

For the last century, New York had used the Sullivan Law’s “proper cause” requirement to decide if gun owners qualify for a concealed-carry permit. Under the state’s so-called “may” law, licensing authorities in New York had discretion over whether or not to issue a permit, while other states, like Texas, have “shall” laws that don’t allow such discretion. The June 23 Supreme Court ruling got rid of “may” laws but kept “shall” laws in place. 

In order to justify its regulation, the government has to demonstrate that it is “consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the majority opinion. “Only if a firearm regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition may a court conclude that the individual’s conduct falls outside the Second Amendment’s ‘unqualified command.’”

Dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the majority opinion ignores the severity of the nation’s gun violence problem. There have been more than 300 mass shootings in the United States in 2022 alone. 

On July 4, seven were killed at a parade in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park. Nineteen children were among the 22 who died at the hands of a gunman at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, in May. Less than two weeks earlier, a white supremacist killed 10 people at a Tops supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo. 

Each of those mass killings involved an AR-15-style semiautomatic weapon. 

In an emailed statement, the Firearms Policy Coalition’s president, Brandon Combs, reiterated that the Second Amendment extends to semiautomatic rifles and cited a portion of Thomas’ opinion that reads, “even though the Second Amendment’s definition of ‘arms’ is fixed according to its historical understanding, that general definition covers modern instruments that facilitate armed self-defense.” 

“New York’s ban is clearly unconstitutional,” Combs’ statement continues, “and we look forward to reminding the state that it must comply with the Constitution in every instance, not merely when it wants to.”

The suit names New York Attorney General Letitia James, as well as district attorneys for Long Island’s Suffolk and Nassau Counties and the state police superintendent.

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