The state of New Jersey’s ban on firearm magazines holding more than 10 bullets can be enforced, a federal court ruled in early December, a victory for the state and for gun control activists who argue the ban is a common sense gun safety rule.
The ruling from the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia upheld a similar decision by a lower court from earlier in the year. And it represents a rare legal victory for gun control proponents, who have seen gun rights gradually expand over the last two decades.
A Divided Court
New Jersey passed its law in June, a response to a spate of mass shootings over the last few years. It was made possible by Democratic victories in 2017, when Phil Murphy easily won the governorship (succeeding the unpopular Republican Chris Christie) and Democrats solidified their control over the state legislature.
Gun rights organizations almost immediately sued to block the new law, claiming that:
- The magazine limits violated the Second Amendment
- The law violated the Constitution’s prohibitions on “takings”
- A provision of the law allowing retired law enforcement officers to carry larger magazines violated the Equal Protection Clause
U.S. District Judge Peter Sheridan rejected all of those claims in September, allowing New Jersey’s law to go into effect (the state previously had a 15-round magazine limit). The 3rd Circuit upheld that ruling by a vote of 2-1.
The 3rd Circuit majority ruled in favor of the state on all counts, rejecting each of the plaintiffs’ arguments. In the majority opinion, Judge Patty Shwartz said that the magazine limitation did not unduly burden gun owners and served to further a legitimate government interest, thus protecting the law on Second Amendment grounds. And because the law allows gun owners to register existing guns with larger magazines or to modify existing magazines, it did not qualify as an unconstitutional taking of property.
The majority also rejected plaintiffs’ equal protection arguments.
The minority dissent, written by Judge Stephanos Bibas, argued that the majority was being overly deferential to the state, saying that the court should have applied a strict scrutiny standard to the case instead of the easier-to-satisfy intermediate scrutiny. Judge Bibas wrote that the state had failed to prove the law would meaningfully affect public safety and accused the majority of substituting “anecdotes” for compelling legal reasoning.
The Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, which brought the suit, has said it is likely to pursue an appeal to the Supreme Court, though it has not made a final decision and is considering all of its options. The Court has passed on a number of Second Amendment cases in recent years, but the current five-justice conservative majority might change the math on the decision to take the case or not.
A “Reasonable” Solution to Gun Violence?
Counting New Jersey, nine states have bans on large capacity magazines. With more direct firearm bans off the table for both political and legal reasons, going after magazines has been a more palatable alternative for concerned legislators.
Legislators and gun control groups have argued that while it might be impossible to prevent a deranged individual from perpetrating a terrible crime, governments can take actions that mitigate the severity of a mass shooting. A ban on high capacity magazines, advocates say, will force shooters to re-load more often, and it’s when shooters have to pause to re-load that civilians can get to safety and law enforcement officials can take decisive action.
The New Jersey law gave owners of large capacity magazines until December 10 to either modify their existing magazines to accept fewer rounds, destroy the gun or the magazine, register guns with a large capacity magazine that couldn’t be modified or turn over the gun or magazine to the police.
But while the state argued this was a reasonable solution consistent with existing Second Amendment protections, critics disputed the idea that it would make the state safer. The Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs filed suit immediately after enforcement of the law began.
The stakes of a potential Supreme Court case on the New Jersey law are high. With individual gun rights now enshrined in American jurisprudence, it has become increasingly difficult to find regulations that will both pass legal muster and effectively achieve the stated goals of legislators. If the Court were to strike down New Jersey’s high capacity magazine ban, it would throw into question the legitimacy of almost any gun control legislation.