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Victory in Second Circuit for tighter gun laws in Connecticut & N.Y.

MANHATTAN (CN) - The Second Circuit on Monday mostly upheld the bans on assault weapons that New York and Connecticut adopted in the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Seen as largely a win for gun-control advocates, the ruling says the laws pose no undue infringement on Second Amendment right to self-defense.

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

Though "the laws at issue are both broad and burdensome," and "impose a substantial burden on Second Amendment Rights," Cabranes said gun owners still have plenty of choices for self-defense, thus reducing that burden.

"In both states, citizens may continue to arm themselves with non-semiautomatic weapons or with any semiautomatic gun that does not contain any of the enumerated military-style features," Cabranes wrote. "Similarly, while citizens may not acquire high-capacity magazines, they can purchase any number of magazines with a capacity of ten or fewer rounds."

New York and Connecticut quickly passed the laws in question, prohibiting possession of semiautomatic assault guns and large-capacity magazines, after a lone gunman in Newtown, Conn., brutally shot and killed 20 first graders and six adults on Dec. 14, 2012.

Prior to the shooting, both states boasted regulation that closely tracked the federal assault-weapons ban, which included a two-prong test for prohibiting semiautomatic weapons.

New York adopted a one-prong test with the Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act in 2013. Nicknamed the SAFE Act, the new statute considers a gun as an assault weapon if it includes one of a list of military-style features, such as a telescoping stock or pistol grip. Connecticut passed a similar law later that year.

A number of gun-owner associations and Second Amendment advocacy groups challenged the two state laws, arguing they are unconstitutional and that parts of the New York statue are unconstitutionally vague .

U.S. District Judge William Skretny in Buffalo ultimately struck down New York's seven-round load limit and other prohibitions on certain gun features.

In Connecticut, U.S. District Court Judge Alfred Covello found that the statute burdened some constitutional rights but that it was ultimately consistent with the Second Amendment.

Using the lens of District of Columbia v. Heller, the landmark 2008 decision that the U.S. Supreme Court issued against Washington, D.C.'s handgun ban, the Second Circuit consolidated both the New York and Connecticut cases for review.

Since Heller's logic noted the popularity of handguns, opponents of the New York and Connecticut laws argued that assault weapons are commonly owned, as well.

Some statistics show that nearly 4 million AR-15s, the most popular assault rifle, have been manufactured since 1986.

Cabranes agreed that it is indisputable that both assault rifles and large-capacity magazines are fairly popular among gun owners, but the judge said they are still less common than handguns when it comes to self-defense.

"This much is clear," Cabranes wrote, "Americans own millions of the firearms that the challenged legislation prohibits."

Popularity does not equal constitutionality, however, Cabranes wrote. In upholding the two state laws, the court listed a number of factors working against both large-capacity magazines and semiautomatic-assault weapons - the latter of which is not considered a "class" of weapon, but merely a political shorthand - such as the fact that they are used in criminal mass shootings, result in more serious and numerous wounds, and are disproportionately used to kill police officers.

The ruling also revives a part of New York's statute that prohibits guns with muzzle breaks, a gun attachment that reduces recoil.

Because New York's SAFE law misspelled the term, Judge Skretny found the ban on muzzle breaks unconstitutional vague.

The Second Circuit noted Monday, however, that there is no such thing as a "muzzle break," so there can be no confusion.

Gun-advocacy groups did score some points in the ruling. Firstly, the court struck down New York's seven-round load limit, stating that New York had failed to prove the limit would lead to fewer large-capacity magazines in circulation.

The court also overturned Connecticut's prohibition of the Remington 7615, a non-semiautomatic rifle that does not have any military-style accoutrements.

Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen applauded the decision.

"At a time when many Americans have abandoned hope of government's ability address gun violence in our schools and on our streets, Connecticut's laws - and today's decision - demonstrate that willing states can enact meaningful reform to improve public safety without violating the Second Amendment," Jepsen said in a statement.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman likewise appreciated that "almost every aspect" of New York's law has been upheld.

"Now that the court has ruled, it is time for everyone involved in the critical debate about how to keep weapons out of the hands of dangerous and unstable people to come together to work toward sensible solutions that will keep our communities safe," Schneiderman said in a statement.

The ruling brought outcry from gun-advocacy groups.

"We, along with our fellow plaintiffs, were hopeful for a more favorable decision from the Second Circuit, but we are not surprised that this decision was handed down from this level," the Connecticut Citizens Defense League said in a statement.

"We knew all along that we would end up appealing to the [U.S.] Supreme Court to overturn this clear injustice of our Second Amendment rights."

Both the CCDL and its Empire State cohorts have vowed to appeal.

"Right from day one when we filed the suit, we said that was only the first step on the way to the U.S. Supreme Court," Tom King, president of the New York State Rifle & Pistol Association, said in an interview. "The Second Circuit Court of Appeals is, after all, a very liberal court and they still upheld [Judge] Skretny's decision on the seven-round magazine limit."

The U.S. Supreme Court is already weighing whether it will hear another lawsuit related to assault rifle bans from Chicago, which may alter the existing Heller precedent.

A Gallup poll released today found that 55 percent of Americans favor stricter gun controls, a rise of 8 percentage points since the a similar poll last year.

More than one-third of gun owners want stricter gun control laws, according to the Gallup poll.

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