This diary is part of a tutorial series breaking down my lay person's approach to reading judicial opinions. We are reading the first federal court review of the New York Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act of 2013, more commonly known the NY SAFE Act.
As readers of Firearms Law and Policy know, most of us are not lawyers. Some of us have experience with guns and some of us never held a gun in our hands. No matter whether you hate guns or love the Heller and McDonald decisions, we believe that understanding actual cases can help us to become better advocates for gun law and policy where we live. Every case has impact on real people's lives. To keep my perspective grounded in that reality it helps to construct a story outline.
|In Part I, we gave you a 30-second plain English summary of the decision. In Part II we looked at the decision from the perspective of the lead plaintiff, the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, NYSRPA. I like to start answering the Who? question with a little research on the lead organizational plaintiff because they usually have a webpage devoted to the case where they explain their goals. Sometimes they also have free copies of all the legal documents they have filed. We did some preliminary research to see who they are and what they thought about the the judge's decision.
"The Court ruled against us on guns, but dismissed 7 round limit."
Michael J. Dillon Memorial U.S. Courthouse, Buffalo, NY
If you're still with me, please join me below the fold, and we'll begin to answer the question in the title. What is this case really about?
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Installing a Low Resolution Map of the Case in Working Memory
In this diary, we’ll cover the Introduction of the decision, (for the big picture) and the Conclusion (for the news). We’ll leave the bones of the case for another day, and flesh out the details later in the diary series. Today our goal is simply to install a low resolution map of the decision in our working memory and notice which terms we might need to look up, in order to understand the decision.
Let's skim the Table of Contents first. We can see quickly that the case is about assault weapons, magazines, and ammunition and there was no issue regarding standing (only one page). To say the plaintiff's obviously have "standing" means the Court accepted that a legitimate case or controversy exists for each of the parties that are challenging the law. They each have a right to file their complaint, in Federal Court, in the Western District of New York. The Second Amendment and Heller are found in the middle, (four pages). The constitutional tests are found in parts D & E (twelve pages). The Court indicates that the analysis is based on constitutional tests called "Common Use", "Substantial Burden," and "Intermediate Scrutiny." Given that section F has nine parts, and takes up nine pages, there's probably an issue with vagueness in the way New York defined assault weapons.
Usually, the introduction will be a page or two, so I try to read the whole thing, to orient myself to the big picture, before trying to make sense of the decision.
[page 1 begins]So that answers part of the basic story question, What? The case is about the New York SAFE Act's restrictions on assault weapons, large-capacity magazines, and ammunition. The "Court notes that whether regulating firearms is wise or warranted is not a judicial question; it is a political one." The Court's role is to evaluate whether the New York legislature violated the US Constitution when they passed some restrictions into law. The seven-round limit infringes on the rights guaranteed by the Second Amendment because it is "largely an arbitrary restriction." Three portions of the assault weapons law are vague and therefore invalid because it would be to hard for an ordinary person to know where the line is between legal and illegal.
Now let’s skip to the conclusion to take a peek at the Why?
“Our Constitution is designed to maximize individual freedoms within a framework of ordered liberty.” Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357, 103 S. Ct. 1855, 1858, 75 L. Ed. 2d 903 (1983). In Heller and McDonald, the Supreme Court found that the right to “keep and bear arms,” enshrined in the Second Amendment, was among those individual freedoms. But the Court also noted that the right was not unlimited. Drawing from post-Heller rulings that have begun to settle the vast terra incognita left by the Supreme Court, this Court finds that the challenged provisions of the SAFE Act — including the Act’s definition and regulation of assault weapons and its ban on large-capacity magazines — further the state’s important interest in public safety, and do not impermissibly infringe on Plaintiffs’ Second Amendment rights. But, the seven-round limit fails the relevant test because the purported link between the ban and the State’s interest is tenuous, strained, and unsupported in the record.
Most parts of the law were upheld because "they further the state’s important interest in public safety, and do not impermissibly infringe on Plaintiffs’ Second Amendment rights." The state provided sufficient evidence to support only six of the nine parts of the assault weapons restrictions. For three of the nine parts the state didn't provide sufficient evidence to convince the judge they serve an important state interest. The restriction that gun owners can only load seven rounds (aka bullets) into a magazine is the only part of the law found to be unconstitutional. That part of the law fails the relevant test because the purported link between the seven round limit and the State’s interest is "tenuous, strained, and unsupported in the record."
At this point my brain is usually already full, so I'll stop and make a short list of terms I need to be clear about. In the next segment we'll open up some dictionaries and look up a few legal terms before we attempt to wade back in again at the beginning. If you feel lost, you're not alone. I always feel lost the first time I look at a new case. If you find something confusing, you can be sure others do too. If there are terms that you would like a future diary to address please do post them in the comments.
This article reviews the first federal court review of the constitutionality of New York state's new gun law. We have read the Introduction and Conclusion of Judge Skretney's ruling. This diary is part III of a tutorial series breaking down my approach to learning about gun law by reading judicial opinions. It was hard at first, and tedious, the same way that learning a foreign language is tedious at first. It does get easier with practice and has been well worth the effort. In the next segment we'll dig into some gun terminology.
I imagine some of you are scratching your head, "Gun technology? Really? Oh joy!" ;)
Thanks for reading!